Cowlitz County threatens to withhold tax money to oppose vaccine mandates
Cowlitz County has threatened to cut public money from businesses or organizations that require workers or customers to be vaccinated. However, some question the move’s legality.
In a resolution passed Tuesday, the county said it would consider ending current arrangements or withhold future money from entities that require vaccines “as a condition of employment or patronage.”
County commissioners passed it with a 2-0 vote. A third commissioner, Dennis Weber, said the resolution was too broad and abstained.
“People need to hear that the government actually understands their plight,” said Commissioner Arne Mortensen, who authored the resolution and joined Commissioner Joe Gardner in supporting it. The Daily News in Longview first reported on the resolution.
The resolution is the second salvo in Southwest Washington against vaccine mandates in the past week. On Aug. 26, Woodland city leaders called the mandates “horrendous civil rights violations” and encouraged workers to challenge the mandates in court.
But Cowlitz County goes further by saying it would wield its authority over tax dollars against the mandates. It’s unclear if the county legally has that authority.
While other cities and counties have stated they want vaccines or masks to be optional, withholding tax dollars may be uncharted waters, according to Eric Johnson of the Association of Washington Counties.
“I haven’t heard of any other county taking this step,” Johnson said.
Counties manage local taxes to run daily operations, like maintaining roads and may use public money to hire private businesses for certain jobs. Mortensen couldn’t say if the county would try to end a vendor’s contract if it attempted to mandate a vaccine.
Counties are also waystations for state and federal grants. Elected leaders parcel out money to businesses, nonprofits and other groups. During the pandemic, millions of federal relief dollars have poured into local governments.
Many of those veins of money come with their own guidelines, Johnson said. Some likely prevent local governments from withholding the funds for such reasons. But there may be other funds the county could use, Johnson said.
At the meeting Tuesday, according to The Daily News, the Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office revised the resolution to clarify the board could only maneuver money that “is within the limit of the board’s authority.”
Bill Marcum, CEO of the Kelso Longview Chamber of Commerce, said the county kept myriad businesses afloat over the past 18 months through taxpayer dollars.
The chamber represents more than 500 members, he said, the vast majority of which are small businesses with fewer than 15 employees. However, it does represent big employers like the timber company Weyerhaeuser. Marcum said he doubted commissioners had any authority over federal relief money.
“I just don’t think they’ll be able to hold their financing as leverage,” Marcum said.
Mortensen said the resolution isn’t meant as a firewall, and that county officials do intend to still use their discretion. He said the resolution is a “stepping stone” to more resolutions signaling their discontent with the state vaccine guidelines.
“My goal is to stop the vaccine mandate,” Mortensen said. “And I will do what I can legitimately to stop that.”
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