City would not collect fire taxes at first, but add those funds back to levy over time

The Newberg City Council now appears inclined to send a charter amendment to voters that would limit its taxing ability in the event of annexation into the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue district — but it's likely not the amendment some were hoping for.

With a looming deadline next week for anything going on the November ballot, the council instructed staff in late July to come up with a charter amendment to put to voters alongside the question of whether to join TVF&R permanently. PHOTO COURTESY OF TVF&R - Whether the city of Newberg will be annexed into the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue district will be decided by voters in November during the general election.

If approved by voters, the amendment would codify in the city's charter a plan for the council to "under-levy" or not collect the amount it has reckoned it spends on fire service for one year, but it could add back that forgone taxing authority in annual increments in the future.

Calling the proposal an "olive branch" with an "escape hatch" for the council, Councilor Patrick Johnson worried that not extending some sort of compromise could cost the city the TVF&R annexation.

"What I'm totally afraid of is that we don't put it out on the ballot and that the annexation fails and then what?" Johnson asked. "I want to do everything in our power to make sure that that annexation passes, because I truly believe TVF&R is the best thing for this community."

City Attorney Truman Stone called for the council to discuss the election in the July 31 special meeting ahead of the Aug. 18 deadline to submit the ballot title and explanatory statement for any questions put to voters in November.

The compromise falls between those who argue that the city restricting itself from collecting taxes binds its hands when some future fiscal crisis arises and those who say the city should never be able to "double dip" by collecting funds for fire services that have been outsourced to TVF&R.

Casting the sole nay vote in the 5-1 decision to pursue the charter amendment, Councilor Stephen McKinney fiercely maintained the former position, arguing that it's in the best interest of Newberg residents for the council to keep all potential funding sources open lest the city be unable to grow in the future

"It ties the hands of reasonable citizens that will sit in this seat in the future," he said. "It ties the hands of people that are going to present safe, responsible, growing budgets that enhance the community. … I'm just finding it very, very difficult to support a charter amendment in any way, shape or form because it's a disservice to the community."

While the council has begun moving on the TVF&R annexation ballot question, the charter amendment issue comes down to the $1.88 per $1,000 in assessed property value city staff approximates it spends on fire service currently out of its total tax rate of $4.38

If Newberg is annexed into TVF&R, the fire district would impose its own tax rate of $2.08 on top of the city's total $4.38 rate, and it's up to the city to decide whether to under-levy its own rate.

While Mayor Bob Andrews previously proposed the council adopt an ordinance vowing not to collect the $1.88, at least initially, some residents rejected that idea because the council could rescind that ordinance at any time.

Instead, a citizens group formed by Robert Soppe, former member of the council, and Lon Wall, budget committee member, have called for a charter amendment that would require the city to permanently forgo the $1.88 without voter approval.

The charter amendment proposed by the council would essentially take Andrew's ordinance plan and put it into the city's charter. If approved, it would bar the city from collecting the $1.88 for one year, but then the council could add up to 3 percent of that $1.88 back to the levy each year – any more than that would need voter approval. Stone said if the city added back the allowed 3 percent every year, it would be about 20 years before the tax rate rose back to $4:38. That 3 percent would also be on top of 3 percent increase in assessed property values allowed to cities in state law.

Reached after the meeting, Soppe said the proposed ordinance as a charter amendment still does not satisfy him, but the group will wait until after the November election to discuss whether they will pursue their own charter amendment ballot measure in the future.

Generally opposed to policy-related charter amendments out of principal, Andrews said he has reconciled with the idea in this case out of fear that a statewide group may again barrage Newberg with mailers and robo-calls and the city might face a more draconian charter amendment in the future.

More importantly, he worried that the more pressing ballot question, annexation into TVF&R, might fail without this charter amendment.

"I have a feeling … we're vulnerable to a charter amendment we may not like from the citizens tomorrow, and I think we're also vulnerable to the public relations that may go on from an anti-tax organization that if we haven't made some definite statement as a council, we won't even get the annexation.," Andrews said.

The council is expected to make a final decision on the charter amendment vote in a special meeting Aug. 14.

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