A bid to lower the city's permanent tax rate was turned back

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The now-completed wastewater treatment plant, shown here, is one of the biggest reasons the city's 2014-15 all-funds budget will be some $10 million less than a year ago. There was no shortage of posturing as the Wilsonville Budget Committee recently spent more than five hours in debate before finally approving a city budget for fiscal year 2014-15.

What they got for all that effort was a grand total of $375,000 shaved from a proposed personnel budget of just over $15 million. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as a group of committee members led by Richard Goddard attempted to lower the city’s permanent property tax rate before settling for more limited reductions in the proposed $121.9 million all-fund budget.

Getting there required a series of contentious amendments to the initial motion to approve the budget. So convoluted were the twists and turns of the various proposals, that at one point committee chair Alan Steiger attempted to call for a vote on the entire budget instead of the amendment under debate.

In the end, the approved budget that now will be considered for adoption June 2 by the City Council differs from the document first presented to the budget committee only in the final amount that will be budgeted for city staff over the coming year. A proposed $15 million personnel budget instead will be trimmed to roughly $14.62 million, part of what is now a $35.25 million operating budget.

By comparison, the city will spend $18.6 million on materials and services in the coming year, a wide-ranging category that includes everything from utilities, offices supplies and advertising to employee development and a whole lot more.

In addition, the all-funds budget contains $25.04 million for capital projects in 2014-15.

$25.04 million; $8.5 million of that will be paid for by urban renewal funding, with another $5 million coming from federal sources. This compares with a 2013-14 capital projects budget of $29.28 million. The decline comes from the completion of the city’s new wastewater treatment plant, a $44 million project that was completed earlier this year on time and under budget.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - One of the first things covered by the 2014-15 city budget approved last week by the Wilsonville Budget Committee is the transition of the former visitor center into the citys new parks and recreation building, shown here. For the coming year, said city Capital Projects Manager Eric Mende, the main projects to be carried out are the extension of Canyon Creek Road South and Barber Street. Both will be paid for with Eastside Urban Renewal District funding. An additional $2.7 million in federal money will also be used in the latter project, which the city expects to go to bid by August. The Canyon Creek project, meanwhile, should be bid by the end of this month, and is expected to be complete by fall.

Debate turns contentious

Once the topic turned to city staffing levels and a proposed personnel budget, debate turned more pointed. Committee member Glenn Ohl insisted the proposed $15 million personnel budget was too extravagant. He said there was no way the city actually would spend that much money anyway over the coming year, pointing to last year’s numbers showing the city spent nearly $1.5 million less than budgeted on personnel during the 2013-14 fiscal year. In large part, this was caused by unfilled staffing vacancies and lower-than-expected overtime costs.

“At the end of the day we have a decision,” Ohl said. “I do think there is padding in the budget.”

After an initial vote to approve the budget as presented failed with a 5-5 vote, committee member and City Council member Richard Goddard took things a step further. Goddard, who was joined by Ohl, Scott Starr, Lonnie Gieber and Wendy Veliz in voting against the budget as proposed, then moved to amend the original budget proposal by cutting two percent from the city’s permanent property tax rate of $2.52 per $1,000 of assessed value.

This took many by surprise, including former city finance director Gary Wallis, who was hired by the city as a consultant for the current budget season because of the departure of former finance director Joanne Osanna. Wallis explained that such a move would save the city’s general fund budget just $110,000 in the coming year, according to quick, “napkin” style calculations. For a house appraised at $280,000, he added, the owner would save just $14 annually.

“Never once has the city council entertained lowering the tax rate,” Goddard replied. “And to me that’s the most meaningful change we could make to people’s pocketbooks, and it could be done without any significant reduction in city services.”

Altering the city’s permanent tax rate also would change how the city levies taxes in its two urban renewal districts, something that also would impact overlapping jurisdictions such as the West Linn-Wilsonville School District or Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue.

Mayor Tim Knapp then offered up tax rates from surrounding cities that show Wilsonville has a lower base rate than Tualatin, Tigard, Lake Oswego, Canby, Oregon City, Woodburn and others. Only West Linn, with a permanent rate of $2.42 per $1,000 of assessed value, is lower.

“That suggests we are already being very frugal with our assessment of our citizens and property owners,” Knapp said. “This would be merely symbolic, but I’m not clear who it’s symbolized to aim at. We’re already $10 million less in this year’s proposed budget than last year; we have not added personnel in the last few years and we know we’ve grown as a city by five percent population in the last year alone.”

A vote to approve the budget with the permanent tax rate levied at 98 percent of the original proposal then failed by a vote of 7-3.

This prompted Starr to remark that it probably would be easier to look at dollar amounts with regard to budget reductions. No one would offer up specifics, however, on how such cuts should be applied to the budget. This led others to call that approach irresponsible.

“I tend to agree with Mayor Knapp that this is a symbolic gesture,” said committee member Tony Holt. “It’s a dereliction of duty, in my opinion, to say, ‘Well, just cut this or cut $2 million and let someone else decide. If this budget is too high, we need to find the programs we want to cut.”

Goddard then reversed himself, telling the committee that the city’s tax rate should not be “arbitrarily” cut. This drew criticism from Knapp, who said it was “not good protocol.”

“I did that for a purpose, to get the discussion going,” Goddard answered. “My personal feeling is that the number should be lower.”

After further debate, City Manager Bryan Cosgrove pointed out that cautious budgeting has allowed the city to build up a $13 million beginning balance in its general fund, along with healthy reserve funds in all but one area of the budget.

“I’m simply saying we’re being asked to approve a budget that is too high,” Ohl said. “But I also know that you can do what the council has asked you to do - to provide the services Wilsonville needs. I just don’t want to approve a budget far in excess of that.”

Shortly after, Veliz moved to approve the budget with a $1 million reduction to either the city’s personnel or materials and services budget – or both. When asked to clarify, she deferred.

“Is that $1 million from the all-funds budget? The operating budget? You’re saying a million from the all funds budget?” asked Cosgove. “You’re worried about capital spending?”

“I’m just saying a million dollars, and I’m leaving it up to you,” Veliz answered.

When asked for clarification of where those cuts should come from, Veliz demurred.

“I just wanted a conversation,” she said.

A further motion to reduce the suggested budget cut from $1 million to $500,000 then passed by a vote of 6-4. But a follow-up vote to approve the budget as a whole with a $500,000 cut then failed after a 5-5 tie.

Committee member and city councilor Susie Stevens then moved to limit the proposed budget cut to $250,000, a motion that passed with an 8-2 vote. However, when the full budget came up for a vote with the $250,000 reduction attached, the committee voted 6-4 against approving the measure.

A final stab at compromise just after 11 p.m. finally took hold, though, as the committee voted 7-3 in favor of the budget budget as originally proposed, with $375,000 trimmed from either personnel or materials and services as needed to reach that figure.

“I think it’s clear to me, that if $500,000 doesn’t pass, what are we doing?” Ohl said. “We can do this forever, so I will go on the record stating it should be significantly more.”

The city council now will take up consideration of the budget for final adoption at its next meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, June 2, at Wilsonville City Hall.

To view the proposed budget in its entirety, you can download a PDF file here:

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