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Tigard council considers lowering proposed utility fee

Council to consider $3.75 park fee on utilities, plans to put issue on ballot

Tigard City Councilors looking to add a new fee to your utility bill agree it’s probably not a great idea, but say it’s what has to happen in order to keep the city working.

For months, city councilors have been mulling over an idea to shift the way that the city pays for parks maintenance.

Upkeep on the city’s parks is paid for by taxpayers in the city’s general fund. But a new idea would change parks maintenance into a city utility and shift the cost to residents’ utility bills in the same way they pay for water or sewer costs.

City officials have said that would free up about $2.2 million in general fund dollars each year to go toward other services, while residents continue to pay for parks on their bills.

The utility fee is necessary, city officials say, because city expenses are growing faster than the amount of revenue the city brings in each year. Toby LaFrance, the city’s finance director, said that the city has struggled for years to find a solution to the problem.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

“Putting it on the utility bill is a bad idea in the long run,” Tigard Mayor John L. Cook told a crowd at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, “but that doesn’t help us in the short run.”

The utility fee doesn’t sit well with residents, either.

“I’m not opposed to parks,” Tigard resident Lonnie Martinez told Councilors. “I am opposed to being forced to pay for something without a democratic process.”

This week, several residents spoke out against the plan, saying that they would rather see the item appear on a future ballot than have it imposed on them.

“I find it very frustrating to be an elected official where our expenses go up faster than we can increase our revenues,” said Council President Jason Snider. “Anyone trying to run a business in that environment is going to find it very difficult. While I don’t love increasing the cost (of utilities), sometimes we have to make those decisions.”

Councilors could put the issue on an upcoming ballot as a local option levy. A levy would impose a tax on property owners, something councilors said they’d support, but they also said thy need to take immediate action to address the city’s budget woes.

“We have to be able to provide services,” added Snider. “We can’t continue to manage as we have with the revenues that we have. It just won’t work in the long run. I’d like to see it on the property tax bill (through a local option levy), but we have an obligation to take action now.”

The city has already agreed to re-open the Tigard Public Library on Thursdays with $100,000 from the proposed parks maintenance fee and has to keep about $400,000 available to offset rising expenses between now and the beginning of the fiscal year, said LaFrance.

Rather than impose the full fee — which would tack about $10 onto city utility bills each month — Councilors are considering a new proposal, charging a significantly smaller version of the parks maintenance fee until it can get a local option levy before voters.

The smaller fee would charge about $3.75 a month on utility bills in order to fund the bare minimum of essentials, such as keeping the library open, completing necessary deferred maintenance on parkland and setting aside enough money to last until the next fiscal year, Cook said.

“That will cover us for now, and gives us a chance to put it out to voters in the future and repeal this (utility fee) if it goes on the property tax bill,” Cook said.

The council is expected to make a final vote on the park’s maintenance fee Feb. 2.

No date has been set for when a proposed local option levy might go before voters.

“This is a perfect example of having the right balance of giving people a voice, but still doing what have to do to run the business,” Snider said.