White Salmon — The White Salmon City Council approved the 2020-21 budget at the Dec. 2 meeting, finalizing an agreement which will see funds dedicated to hiring a land use planner as well as a social worker within the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.

Mayor Marla Keethler wrote in the budget summary that the hiring of a land use planner was the most significant change.

“It is my fervent belief that intentional planning is what will set White Salmon on the right course to achieve long-term resiliency as a small-town that is affordable for residents, appealing to tourists, welcoming of entrepreneurs, and supportive of right-sized economic development,” Keethler wrote.

The budget also includes funds that would be used to hire an outreach coordinator to support the city’s communication efforts. Speaking on the proposal to include such funding, Keethler said that since White Salmon does not have its own community paper anymore, communications efforts from the city have mostly come from Keethler herself.

“I work full time, I’ve got two kids … and the extra hours that this person could give would be a huge benefit that I think would be noticeable in the city,” said Keethler.

All the positions that the city added to the budget would be hired on as contractors.

During council discussion, Councilor Ashley Post raised a question about the average market rate for a social worker. The proposed budget estimated the city would be charged $100 per hour for services provided by a social worker, to which Brending responded that “that is probably an appropriate dollar amount.

“We put that dollar amount; there’s a lot of work that needs to go into that at the beginning of the year,” said Brending, noting the position would be on a contract basis. “Certainly if it looks like it’s

going to cost more we’ll need to come back with a budget amendment, but at this time we believe it’s a reasonable amount.”

Police Chief Mike Hepner added that a local agency would be chosen for the task, although particulars of the arrangement have not been worked out, and that he is meeting with other departments who have hired on social workers to strategize for the city’s implementation of the position.

In the budget summary, Keethler wrote “mental health struggles in our community have been a heartbreaking issue that our officers have seen firsthand, and with a keen awareness that the best support for the individual in need is often professional support of another kind. To continue turning a blind eye to this pressing issue is a policy failure, and that lies with those of us elected to represent the public’s interests.”

Brending said during the meeting that the city’s hotel/motel tax, which went into effect this year, raised $33,118.24 in its first year of operation. The city is anticipating a higher gain next year, around $48,000, “particularly as we continue to work with our short-term rental people and make sure that they are paying their appropriate taxes. We also think next year tourism will pick up.”

The tax is an excise tax on the sale of lodging, credited by the state, at a rate of two percent. Brending wrote in a subsequent email that the funds are restricted to marketing and tourism activities, and the city is developing a procedure to award grants for some of those funds collected.

The city council also approved a one-percent increase in property taxes, the annual limit allowed by state law.

There was one public comment for the final budget hearing from resident Mark Lindley, who argued for the city to take initiative to perform fuel reduction activities.

“After witnessing the tragic loss of life and property due to wildfires in the west, it is obvious to any casual observer driving northbound on the Hood River Bridge, that White Salmon is extremely vulnerable to a devastating wildfire,” said Lindley. “The strong west winds in the gorge, super dry conditions, the presence of ignition sources along SR-14, the BNSF railroad track and SR-141A and decades of heavy fuels and steep terrain on the bluff, are ideal conditions for a major fire.”

Responding to the public comment, Brending announced that a representative from the Washington state Department of Natural Resources will be making a presentation to city council next meeting about DNR grant money that would be used to create a fire fuel break in the area of Gaddis Park. Keethler said further there would be some “active measures” coming before the city council later that would hit on the topic of fuel reduction. Fire Chief Bill Hunsaker added that a recently adopted county-wide Multi-Hazard Mitigation plan addresses concerns about fuel reduction.