Town meeting considers full-service city, tax increase
More than 50 people showed up for Forest Grove's Annual Town Meeting Saturday, Jan. 28, to discuss local option levies, city services and myriad other issues.
City staff summarized the roles of various city departments and the costs required to fund them, then instant-polled audience members on their support for tax increases.
The last segment of the meeting gave residents a chance to submit questions on any topic.
Forest Grove is rare in its ability to be a "full-service city," providing residents with their own police, fire, parks and recreation, power, water, sewer, library and more. Many neighboring similarly-sized cities contract out at least some of those services. Tualatin, for example, receives power from Portland General Electric, water from the city of Portland and fire services from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
So while Forest Grove has higher tax rates than Newberg, Sherwood and Tualatin, it's actually less expensive on average to live here because power and water costs are so much lower.
When polled, 73 percent of the audience said cost was less important to them than who provided their services. Kolleen Mann said she likes that Forest Grove provides its own services. Mann lives in Gaston but her husband pastors His Church in Forest Grove. "It makes it seem like there's more of an identity here, like 'this is us and we take care of us.'"
When polled on whether they would support a 30-cent increase on the current local option levy, 89 percent of the audience said yes. That would mean about an additional $75 a year for owners of a $250,000 property.
The current levy, which charges homeowners $1.60 per $1,000 of assessed value expires June 2018. Councilors are considering whether to put a levy renewal or increase before the voters in the November 2017 election.
Forest Grove Finance Director Paul Downey said expenses, including employee benefits such as healthcare, are increasing faster than revenue. Renewing the levy without the 30-cent increase would force the city to start draining its reserves, he said, with the city spending significantly more money each year than it would be receiving.
One important factor in a "full service city," Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax pointed out, is that the city council has control over service and related decisions. Cities who use Tualatin Valley Fire District, for example, are subjected to whatever that organization's board decides.
The meeting ended with several questions from the audience, including 10 people who participated through an online live webinar.
Becca Cohoon said she attended the meeting because her pastor at His Church encouraged the congregation to become more involved in the community. Cohoon said she'd like to see more programs for youth and a safe place for teens to spend time.
City Manager Jesse VanderZanden suggested parents encourage their teens to apply for the open positions for students on city boards. Truax also suggested city encouragement of those who turn 18 to vote. "We need more young people involved."
Erica O'Shey said she's lived in Forest Grove for nine years and figured it was time she started participating more. She feels there have been a lot of arguments within the community and would like to help heal the divide with discussions.
David Michael Smith has lived in town for less than one year but was inspired to get involved by the recent issue the Forest Grove City Council was faced with on the sanctuary city debate. He said he fought in the Vietnam War to stand up for the rights of every person, which should be equitably represented despite creed, ethnicity, economic status or sexual orientation.
Smith said he wants to become engaged at a level he can make a difference and he thinks that starts with city government.
One audience member wanted to know whether the council would revisit designating Forest Grove a sanctuary city. VanderZanden said one of the no-voting councilors would have to bring it up before the Jan. 23 meeting minutes are approved at the Feb. 13 meeting. Or any councilor could propose a new resolution with slightly different wording.
VanderZanden also addressed an audience question about whether the city staff matches the city's demographics (about 20 percent Hispanic). The police department's demographics do match with about 20 percent of patrol officers being Hispanic and with two more who speak fluent Spanish.
VanderZanden said the city is currently working with an outside organization which will help them take a look at improving racial representation in other city departments.