Gresham city councilors on Tuesday, Dec. 4, unanimously approved a monthly $7.50 fee for every household and business in the city to prevent more cuts to fire, police and park services.

The fee takes effect Feb. 1, 2013. A new one-time-only yearly surcharge on business licenses also starts in February and will cost businesses $2 per employee with the first 50 employees being exempt.

The fee will be added to utility bills for businesses and household in the city including apartments, duplexes, rental houses and owner-occupied dwellings, raising $3.5 million to prevent further cuts to public safety. Ninety-five percent of the money will fund police and fire services, with 5 percent for park maintenance.

Mayor Shane Bemis has said the fee shouldn't only apply to property-tax payers because for everyone, from apartment dwellers to business owners, benefit from police and fire service.

The fee is temporary and expires after 17 months on June 30, 2014. By then, residents will have voted in May of 2014 on a 5-year levy to replace the fee and surcharge.

Gresham has long struggled to fund city services with one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. Without more revenue for the city's general fund, the bulk of which pays for police and fire services, Gresham would have been forced to consider closing a fire station next year or making cuts to police that would lower response times.

Residents narrowly defeated a public safety levy in 2008, the first year of the global economic downturn.

But this year, forecasts for property-tax revenue showed a decline — the first since the recession began four years ago — and that decline is expected to continue.

“It's not my first choice, to talk about revenue in an economy like this when people are hurting,” Bemis said Tuesday night.

However, the city is “at the tipping point right now,” said Councilor Paul Warr-King. “This is necessary to maintain essential services.”

Citizens shaped fee proposal

Residents in droves attended five town hall meetings on the proposed fee this September and October.

Many citizens complained that the council would decide whether to enact the fee, not voters.

They also called the fee a regressive tax — it’s the same for a multimillion-dollar corporation as a single parent living in poverty. Residents recommended a higher fee for larger companies and additional assistance for low-income residents who likely will pay the fee in the form or raised rents.

Councilors listened.

On Tuesday, the council approved a vastly altered plan, including a three-phase approach for owners of multi-family housing of four units or more. The fee will cost $2.50 a unit for the first two months, $5 a unit for the third and fourth months, and then the full $7.50-a-month fee after that.

The plan calls for enhancing the city's utility assistance program for extremely low-income households and to provide funding for non-profit organizations that help with rental assistance, in order to help residents whose rents go up as a result of the fee.

Funding for this part of the program would be ironed out this spring as part of the city's annual budget process.

To help soften the blow to multi-family property owners, the city is considering scaling back its rental housing inspection program to focus only on significant health and safety issues, lowering its annual rental license fee and conducting less frequent inspections of well-maintained complexes.

Councilors are expected to act on these possible changes to the rental housing inspection program early next year.

Non-payment, or not paying the fee for 26 days, could result in a utility customer's water service being discontinued. The council also could create fees to reimburse the city for the cost of having to collect any delinquent fees.

In the longterm, councilors are marking their calendars for May of 2014, when a levy will come before voters. The levy would generate $3.5 million a year, replacing the fee and surcharge, but would be in place for five years.

What such a levy would cost residents remains to be seen, but Gresham City Manager Erik Kvarsten said a levy would be at least $1 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value.

Mixed reaction

Reaction from citizens is mixed. George Schneider chastised the council for paying for the necessities last. “Because they didn't fit into the budget, you are levying a fee on us to cover that shortfall,” he said. “... Getting the budgeting system backwards wasn't enough for you though. You had to use the new fee as a blunt-force weapon to try to pass a tax levy in a year and a half. This cannot be seen from these seats as anything but cynicism of the highest order.”

Gresham resident Keith Moore couldn't disagree more and is just thankful he's live to do so.

On Thursday, Nov. 29, Gresham firefighters performed a dramatic rescue, saving Moore from his burning home. With the closest fire engines busy on another structure fire, an off-duty battalion chief was first on the scene. He found Moore trapped behind metal security bars covering a bedroom window. With Moore struggling for air, a firefighter from the first engine to arrive pressed his air mask to Moore's face. A few minutes later, a second fire truck arrived with the saws needed to cut the bars.

“All these heroes here literally saved my life,” Moore told the crowded council chambers, gesturing to a line of firefighters who the council honored. “They say I had three minutes to live. If these guys hadn't done what they did,” Moore said, trailing off. “Three minutes means eternity.”

After hearing other citizens give testimony about the fee, Moore stood in the back of the council chambers, shaking his head in disbelief. “And they're considering closing down a fire station,” he said. “I wouldn't recommend it.”

Moore, 53, is living in a motel with his cat Arwin, who survived the fire. And his home is insured.

An extra $7.50 a month?

“I'd gladly pay it,” he said. “I'm just really lucky to be alive.”

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