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Critics speak out on fees

But city of West Linn officials defend their choice to charge fees to maintain services

In a recent controversial decision, the West Linn City Council decided on a split vote to continue to add more infrastructure maintenance fees to local residents' utility bills.

The council earlier this fall decided to charge each utility user $8.80 for parks maintenance. The current proposal, which will come back to the council Jan. 14, 2008 for a second reading, is to charge $6.90 a month for roadway maintenance and street lighting.

The 3-2 vote on the ordinance's first reading included councilors Mike Gates, Michele Eberle and Jody Carson voting in favor and councilor Scott Burgess and Mayor Norm King voting against the proposal.

Since the Tidings' Web site received so many comments and questions about the articles on this topic, some councilors and city staff were given those questions and asked to respond.

While most comments were specifically about the fees, some referred to the recent approval of purchasing new financial software and the failure of the police levy, which contributed to a reduction in annual city revenue of about $2,000,000.

But Contract Finance Officer Andy Parks says he doesn't think of the police levy as failing. He said the levy was supported twice with a large majority of yes votes from those who cast ballots.

'The levy passed twice with overwhelming support,' Parks said. 'Just because a state constitutional amendment required a double majority doesn't change the fact that the levy got overwhelming support. The levy didn't fail; it just wasn't renewed.'

Among those complaining about higher monthly utility bills are elderly residents living on fixed incomes.

Eberle sympathized with the resident, but said the city doesn't have enough money to cover all of the services its residents want.

'The city of West Linn has a state mandated fixed tax rate of $2.12 per $1,000 of assessed home value,' she said. 'This does not result in enough funds to operate core services for our city. In order to secure enough revenue to operate core services for the city of West Linn either a fee needs to be put in place or a levy passed by voters.

'Sustaining core services through levies requiring voter approval puts core services at risk and does not allow the city to plan its finances and services beyond a two or three-year window.'

Another elderly resident asked to be excluded from paying for some city services that are not used.

Mayor King, who describes himself as a senior citizen living on a fixed income, said it is not feasible that some should pay and some should not.

'I do not think it is reasonable for citizens to expect to pay only for the city's general services that they use,' King said. 'None of us use all city services. You will use different services and facilities than your neighbors. If city facilities were allowed to decay and decline in value, your property values also would probably go down.

'The cost of repairing facilities that have been in decline for a long time is much higher than the cost of maintenance on a regular basis.'

A number of local residents were outraged when the city transferred funds from other departments to pay for police officers that had been funded with a levy that did not gain double-majority approval three times.

At the Dec. 10 meeting, Burgess reminded the audience that charging fees for maintenance was a choice of the budget committee before the police levy failed.

City Manager Chris Jordan said that charging fees for parks and streets was the choice of local citizens, both elected and appointed.

'When the public safety levy expired,' Jordan said, 'the city council and the budget committee (which serves as the citizen financial oversight committee), unanimously supported the use of fees to maintain city services.

'It was determined during budget development that the high level and quality of city services is why people choose to live here versus other communities in the area. This sentiment was maintained during the discussion and ultimate adoption of a parks maintenance fee, and this sentiment also has been shared during recent conversations about a street maintenance fee.'

Some citizens questioned the city council's judgment in choosing to charge local residents more for the usual, expected city services, while at the same time approving a five-year expense of more than $600,000 for financial software.

King said that expense was not new, and it actually was a cost reduction compared to keeping the software it is now using.

'I would consider it poor judgment not to pay $616,000 for financial software instead of from $894,000 to $914,000 that it would cost to continue with the current obsolete software,' King said. 'By changing to the new system the city is saving close to $300,000. The $616,000 is a five-year expense, not a one-year expense. It is not a new expense, but one that the city incurs each year.

'The new system is new technology, easier to use and will be compatible with other city systems (the current system is not). It provides better information to citizens and city employees, helps city staff analyze trends, performance, track costs and is more secure. The new system enhances internal controls, and is more efficient. If anything, the savings free up thousands of dollars for 'essential services.'

Some residents offered other means of filling city coffers with fairer taxes instead of fees. At least one suggested a gas tax as a better way of gaining revenue than a fee, which was described as 'regressive.'

Eberle said the council didn't believe a gas tax would have provided enough revenue.

'The fuel tax was decided against because there are only four gas stations in town,' Eberle said, 'and increasing the gas tax was not predicted to result in collection of enough funds to allow for a sustainable method for roadway maintenance.

'Through the use of a roadway maintenance fee, a consistent stream of revenue will be available to protect the $100 million asset of the city's roadways.'

Some people were critical of the city for reaching decisions without considering the views of local residents.

Jordan said the public has been involved, and people have had many opportunities to voice their views and affect the council's decision.

'After an extensive public process that involved 17 separate meetings and public hearings over the last two years (seven of those meetings within the last four months),' Jordan said, 'the city council continues to consider user fees to fund street maintenance. Investment in streets is critical, as the city street network is valued at $100 million, and is the city's single greatest asset.'

There are residents who feel that allowing more people to live in West Linn causes a higher cost to maintain the city's infrastructure. They would prefer that voters reject all annexation proposals (in their words) 'to keep city growth in check and along with it the need to keep increasing taxes and charging fees.'

Mayor King, however, has a different view on infill annexations.

'Every citizen has a right to vote any way they want to,' he said. 'But please keep in mind that even with several small annexations over the past few years, the population of West Linn did not go up at all in 2006.

'Also keep in mind that growth is not increasing your taxes and has next to no relationship to the fees. West Linn's permanent tax rate is one of the lowest, if not the lowest in the Portland metropolitan area. The infill building we are experiencing now is adding revenue to pay for the services the rest of us are already paying. If they were not annexed, they would get the services free.'

Those willing to accept the fee as necessary, at least in the short-term, are asking about the future. They want to know how they can have control over future adjustments to fees.

'The budget committee, made up of five citizen members and five elected officials,' Eberle said, 'will review projected revenues and expenses and recommend an increase or decrease to the fee on an annual basis.

'The citizens of West Linn have the opportunity to serve as budget committee members or elected officials to partake in this process. Also, budget committee meetings are open to the public and allow for public testimony, so input on the fee can be provided annually.'

Jordan admits the decision was very difficult for staff, councilors and citizens because they were constantly taking into account the needs of all residents and balancing those with plans to sustain city revenue for future needs.

'The decision to maintain services by charging fees was not an easy decision to make,' Jordan said. 'Throughout the process, elected officials, staff and citizens weighed issues related to equity, efficiency, and priority.

'It was determined that charging a fee for service would allow the city to provide the same high-quality level of service to all citizens and would create a sustainable revenue source that would allow the city to use financial forecasting and project management to ensure that all aspects of public services can be provided to residents at a low cost - now, and into the future.'

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, Jordan said, the parks maintenance fee of $8.80 per month and the proposed roadway maintenance fee of $6.90 per month would increase the average annual expenses for a West Linn family by approximately one-tenth of one percent.

Jordan realizes that amount is not very significant for some, but could be very objectionable to families on fixed incomes.

'The city recognizes that these fees will impact all citizens,' he said, 'but at the same time these fees will ensure that the city of West Linn will continue to be the type of community where families choose to live because of the high quality of life, beautiful parks and maintained infrastructure.'

This issue is likely to reappear on a council agenda in January, since the panel still has to consider the ordinance on its second reading, approve a master fee schedule and decide if it wants non-residential fees phased.