Newberg voters will see two questions on the November general election ballot: whether to join the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue District and whether the city should forgo the taxes that formerly went to fire service for a while by amending the city charter.
The Newberg City Council approved both questions to go on the ballot – one by unanimous vote and one narrowly passing – putting an end to a months-long debate on whether the council or the electorate will get the final decision on annexation.
While councilors raised an array of concerns at their Aug. 14 meeting about the logistical issues of joining TVF&R – such as the transfer of property and dispatching calls – they all expressed that annexation is the best thing for the city and approved the various pieces for that election unanimously.
"I'm so confident that this is the right thing to do that I would have supported the resolution had they just asked the six councilors and the mayor for permission to annex," said Council President Stephen McKinney. "We've kind of gone the extra mile in sending this to a vote of the people …"
While the decision to put the annexation to a vote wasn't controversial to the council, they brought up some logistical pieces of concern, primarily how property will be transferred from Newberg to TVF&R and what the city will get for it all.
City Manager Joe Hannan said staff is still calculating the value of Newberg's fire assets and that information will be presented to the council in the coming weeks. In the meantime, he said the city and TVF&R will work out an agreement on that transfer, subject to council approval, especially as the city looks for financial assistance from TVF&R and the city of Dundee on a costly communications upgrade allowing both agencies to continue with the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency.
Charter amendment debate
Unlike the annexation question, the charter amendment sharply divided the five present councilors, who narrowly approved it by a 3-2 vote. Mike Corey was absent and the council appointed newcomer Matthew Murray to the vacant seventh seat later in the meeting.
If approved by voters, the amendment would prevent the council from initially assessing the city's calculation of how much fire and emergency medical services previously cost the city – $1.88 per $1,000 in assessed property value or about $3.3 million next year. It would allow, however, the city to add back those funds in 3-percent annual increments, starting in the second year after annexation. With a permanent tax rate of $4.38, the amendment would temporarily cut that down to $2.50 per $1,000.
If the council wanted more than 3 percent per year, they would have to put the question to voters, explained Mayor Bob Andrews, who largely authored the proposal and voted to approve it despite his misgivings about amending the city charter.
"If we would need to do a special levy, a local option levy, or we needed to do any other type of bonding, we still need to come to you, the electorate, and get your blessing on that," Andrews said. "This doesn't change (that) other than it gives us a small escalator that we can work with without putting a sudden, undue burden on anybody's property."
Councilors Denise Bacon and Scott Essin joined with Andrews in approving the charter amendment, citing how this acquiesces to those who wanted a restriction on funds used for fire to be codified in the charter while compromising to allow the city some financial wiggle room in the future.
McKinney and Patrick Johnson opposed the ballot question, but for nearly opposite reasons.
Johnson initially moved to strike the 3 percent figure from the question and would remove the "escalator" giving the council some additional revenue, arguing that the city already gets a small annual bump in funding through a 3 percent increase in assessed property value.
"I see the 3 percent increase in this charter amendment as double-dipping, almost as bad as having a tax rate that isn't providing a service – and that's what this does over the course of 21 years," he said.
McKinney expressed multiple points of opposition, first noting how the amendment goes back on the city's word to not collect funds for services it doesn't provide and then settling back to the argument that the amendment is an unnecessary financial constraint that will inhibit the city's ability to spur growth.
"A mere increase of 3 percent of over a possible 21-year period of time says we will not keep our promise, nor can we be trusted …," he said. "Limiting the tax levy limit to $2.50 per $1,000 is nonsense and a major disservice to the citizens of Newberg."
Bacon responded by noting how the city sought to join TVF&R because it couldn't keep up the cost of the level of service that citizens wanted and the 3 percent gives the city some relief for the other services that are also getting more and more expensive.
"What's the next service that the citizens want to give up? Is it police? Is it dispatch? Do we want more roads to fall apart? That 3 percent isn't going to save us, but it will help push us that maybe we will be able to continue the level of services that we want …," she said.