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Are parks a utility? In Tigard, the answer is yes

Tigard parks fee will cost residents about $100 a year, will be phased in over five years

Correction appended.

Tigard residents could see a new item appear on their water bills next year.

The Tigard City Council said last week that residents will likely see the cost of a new utility — this one to support local parks — that would be phased in over a five-year period on their monthly water bills, starting in mid-2016.

Tigard City Councilors are planning to vote early next year to make the city’s parkland into a utility.

For years, property owners have paid taxes to maintain the city’s parks, but councilors have been working for months on a plan to treat parks as another utility, with a monthly charge similar to water, sewer and electrical utilities.

The utility fee would cost residents about $8.18 a month (about $98 a year) for the first year, according to documents supplied to the City Council last week, growing to $9.50 a month(about $114 a year) by the year 2020.

The city expects to bring in between $1.5 million and $2 million a year from the monthly charge.

Why the fee?

The city’s budget committee first took up the idea last year in order to alleviate budget constraints that have hounded the city for years, said Toby LaFrance, the city’s finance director.

The majority of Tigard’s budget comes from its general fund which gets its money from property taxes. Those taxes predominantly pay for four things: police, the Tigard Public Library, maintaining the city’s parks and community building activities.

But those costs are rising.

LaFrance said that while the city’s revenue grows by about 3 ½ percent each year, its expenses grow by about 4 percent.

“The budget committee has made a few Band-Aids and patches and small, incremental changes to keep ourselves level,” LaFrance said.

In 2010, Tigard residents passed a $17 million bond measure to buy new parkland across the city. That increased the city’s parkland by nearly a third, LaFrance said, adding 136 acres of over the past five years.

But while the city’s public spaces have grown considerably, the budget to maintain and develop those properties hasn’t.

“In short, our parks have grown faster than our ability to fund them,” LaFrance said.

Tigard’s recent 30-percent increase in parkland is only part of a recent surge in parks acquisition for the city. According to LaFrance, the city’s parkland has grown by two-thirds in the last 15 years, leaving many of the parks undeveloped or poorly maintained.

Parks levy proposed

Tigard residents already pay higher utility bills than those in most other comparable cities in the metro area, LaFrance told Councilors at the Nov. 17 meeting. Residents pay about $1,360 a year in utility fees. Residents in Beaverton, Sherwood, Tualatin, Hillsboro, Gresham and West Linn pay less in utilities.

But city officials say that the separating parks from the rest of the general fund will mean more money for police and the library.

The city previously talked about the charge months ago, saying it could be a way to re-open the Tigard Public Library on Thursdays. The city said it would fund the library’s return to seven-day-per-week coverage if Washington County voters approved the library local option levy earlier this month, which easily passed 63 percent to 36 percent.

Re-opening the library to weeklong coverage will be paid for, in part, through the levy's passage, and through city funds, which will be able to allocate more resources with parks made into a utility, city offiicials said.

The potential addition of the PARC fee isn’t unprecedented. Gresham approved a $7.50 monthly fee in 2013 to fund parks and police service. Medford has had a parks utility since 2005.

The plan also comes with a share of controversy, however. Tigard Mayor John L. Cook said it could come at a heavy burden to residents.

“Looking at the utility fee, we also have a street maintenance fee (residents pay) that charges about $6 a month. That will probably rise to $10 in the next few months. The sewer fee is $2.50 a month, the sidewalk fee is $13 a month. Add those and the parks fee together, that’s about $40 in monthly fees.”

Rather than a monthly utility charge, several councilors said that the city might consider placing the parks fee on the 2016 ballot as a property tax levy.

Councilors are expected to vote on the utility fee in January.

By Geoff Pursinger
email: gpursinger@commnewspapers.com
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Editor's Note: This story has been edited to better reflect the nature of how the utility would fund the re-opening of the Tigard Public Library, which would be re-opened with a combination of levy funds and city funds.