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CITY SCALES BACK ON STREET FEES

Council gives local businesses some relief and says a levy on May ballot could replace fees

The city of West Linn is trying to make the cost of street maintenance a little easier to take, especially for local businesses.

At Monday night's regular meeting, the city council gave unanimous approval to the monthly $4.40 fee for residences; decided that fees could rise only 3 percent a year; and delayed action on fees for businesses for two weeks.

In addition, the proposed street lighting fee was eliminated; the city choosing instead to pay for it from state gas tax revenue. Councilors also stated that should the state provide additional gas-tax funding for local street maintenance, fees would be reduced by that amount.

Mayor Norm King also noted that the council intends to put a levy on the May 20 primary ballot for ongoing street maintenance. The city's long-term goal is to bring the streets' pavement condition index to a more acceptable rating of 75. The current PCI is 68, according to a report given the council in November by Joel Conder, a senior project manager with a Salem firm that specializes in pavement evaluations.

'If the levy passes,' King told residents at Monday's meeting, 'then we would eliminate the fee, and the (levy) collected would be tax-deductible (city fees are not deductible).'

While the city is still working on a schedule for business fees, it is proposing that road maintenance fees for larger businesses be reduced from the original proposal, King said during Monday's meeting.

Although charges for the smallest businesses would remain at $4.40 monthly, fees for the largest businesses - some of which had been proposed in excess of $3,000 a month - would now be capped at $440 monthly. And public institutions such as schools would have their fee capped at $300 a month. City staff also is looking at how to incorporate home-based businesses into the mix.

Much of the controversy over fees for businesses was rooted in the supposed purpose of each trip by local residents to each business. A gas station owner, for example, objected to paying the full price for the stop to get gas when he said it likely was an afterthought during a trip to another business (or several businesses).

Business owners objected to the idea that each would pay the full price for trips that included stops at several businesses. And the largest businesses, which would have to budget nearly $40,000 annually for road fees, likely would have to raise prices to cover the new expense.

The proposed amendments to the business fee schedule, which had their vote postponed for two weeks, were achieved over the past two weeks through negotiation and collaboration between city leaders and local business owners, according to Kirsten Wyatt, assistant to the city manager.

'We had a lot of public comment coming in since the last meeting,' Wyatt said Tuesday. 'Staff tried to weigh all of that and share that information with the council. We came up with a compromise that made as many people happy as possible.'

What city leaders heard from citizens, Wyatt said, was that the fees need to be fair for everyone.

The city is still listening and fine-tuning the proposal, which will appear on the Jan. 28 agenda.

The proposed changes apparently are acceptable, since some business representatives initially came to Monday's meeting to oppose the fees but changed their minds after they heard the latest proposal.

Steve Moore, owner of Philadelphia's Steaks and Hoagies on Willamette Drive, told the council that he appreciated the changes.

'I signed up originally to oppose this because I thought there was a huge disparity between the amount of money that was coming from approximately 80 (businesses), where 45 percent of the funds were coming from and the 9,000 (households) …

'(But) I think what you've done really addresses the issues that I felt were coming out.'

Representing the city's grocery stores, which would have paid the largest fees among businesses, was Joe Gilliam of the Northwest Grocery Association.

Gilliam told the council he was satisfied that the newest proposal was fairer than the previous one.

'We have been concerned about the street fee the way it was originally written,' he said. 'I sent each one of you an e-mail today that outlines our concerns. But I feel that the (proposed) amendments put us in a place where we can live with the ordinance and work with staff, who has done an outstanding job in a tough situation … We think we can work this out, go forward and be happy customers here in our community.'

Also speaking to the council were local residents Alice Richmond and Bob Thomas.

Richmond reminded the council that West Linn is not alone; that other cities are looking into charging fees for road maintenance. She said if we want to drive on good streets and walk on good sidewalks we have to pay the price.

Thomas, however, disagreed with the proposal to charge fees. He said fees are not needed and that the city should explore other avenues of funding park and road maintenance and street lighting by using money the city has diverted into lower priority expenses.

'Because this city hasn't responsibly husbanded and used the revenues it already had available,' Thomas said, 'it's resorting to the imposition of fees in order to make up for its, in my opinion, irresponsible and unwise use of the revenues it otherwise was already receiving.'

But the council was pleased with the results of recent work on covering the proposed expenses. Newly elected Council President Michele Eberle said this was the result of at least 1½ years of work.

'I greatly appreciate that so many people in the community stepped forward to bring concerns to us and question the numbers,' she said, 'and I greatly appreciate staff responding so quickly to get information out there.'