Gresham’s mayor is proposing a monthly fee be charged to every business and household in the city — including apartments — to prevent further cuts to public safety.

Shane Bemis unveiled his proposal Tuesday, Sept. 11, during a neighborhood coalition meeting, at which representatives from all the city’s neighborhood associations were in attendance.

He is suggesting a $7.50 monthly fee be added to utility bills for businesses and all households — apartments, duplexes, rental houses and owner-occupied dwellings — in Gresham.

The fee would raise $3.5 million a year — 95 percent would fund police and fire services, with 5 percent funding park maintenance.

Bemis said the fee is needed because Gresham property taxes are no longer enough to fund basic services, such as police and fire.

Gresham is the fourth largest city in the state but has one of the state’s lowest property tax rates. At $3.62 per $1,000 of assessed property, Gresham brings in nearly half the revenue that Portland does at $7.20 per $1,000.

And forecasts for 2012-13 show a drop in Gresham’s property tax revenue — the first since the recession began in 2008.

Statewide property tax measures limit the city’s ability to bring in more revenue. Other than bonds and levies, “there’s almost no tools left for local government,” Bemis said.

The city has tried and failed to find other sources of revenue for fire and police services.

Gresham residents narrowly defeated a public-safety levy in 2008. Before that, they also voted against forming a fire district, which would have stabilized funding for the fire department.

But the mayor’s proposal will not go before residents for a vote. Instead, the mayor and city councilors will vote on whether to approve the fee sometime before the end of the year.

Until then, the city is hosting five town hall meetings to provide more details about the proposed fee. The first meeting is next week, Wednesday, Sept. 19, with the last Wednesday, Oct. 10. A letter about the proposal also is being mailed to residents and business owners this week.

Bemis said the fee is needed for all households, not just property-tax paying homeowners, because everyone who lives in Gresham or has a business in the city benefits from police and fire service.

The average property-tax paying household in Gresham pays $60 a month to the city for fire, police, parks, planning, economic development and code enforcement. Of that, $53 is spent on police and fire.

With the proposed fee, an average Gresham homeowner would pay $67.50 a month in both property taxes and the fee. Those who own apartments, duplexes or other forms of rental housing likely will raise rents to account for the fee.

“We’re not talking about adding,” Bemis said, referring to city services or positions. “We’re talking about not subtracting more.”

Gresham’s parks and recreation department has no staff other than maintenance crews. The police department has 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, but the national industry standard is a 1.5 ratio. Not counting grant-funded positions, the department’s ratio dips to 0.99 officers per 1,000 residents.

“That’s not safe for the officers, and it’s not safe for the community,” Bemis said.

Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger said he supports the mayor’s proposal.

“For the police, it will maintain the assurance of a quick response by police officers to an emergency situation in a manner the community has come to expect out of their police department,” he said.

Fire Chief Scott Lewis also favors the proposal. “Gresham Fire & Emergency Services, as with other city services, has taken dramatic steps to reduce costs while limiting the impact on emergency response,” he said, adding that the department has cut more than 10 positions over the last several years.

“We are to a point where further reductions will impact our ability to keep all six fire stations open. Any changes in our deployment model, fewer fire engines, will increase response times. While firefighters will always give their very best effort, having less will eventually mean doing less. The proposal being considered by the mayor and council provides a real opportunity to continue to provide the best possible service to the community.”

Bemis said he knows the proposed fee will be unpopular.

It might even be political suicide.

“I don’t care what happens to me politically,” he said. “That’s never driven me. What matters to me is the future of this city and the amenities and the services to create a place we all want to live in. That can attract businesses and families. We cannot continue in the current revenue structure. If they want a new mayor, then they’ll elect a new mayor.”

If you go

The city of Gresham is hosting five town hall meetings to detail Mayor Shane Bemis’ proposal for a monthly fee on all businesses and households, including apartments and other rental homes, to prevent more cuts to police, fire and park maintenance.

n 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, Gresham City Hall Council Chambers, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway

n 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, Springwater Trail High School, 1440 S.E. Fleming Ave.

n 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2, Gresham City Hall Council Chambers, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway

n 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, Rockwood Library, 17919 S.E. Stark St.

n 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, Portland Adventist Elementary School, 3990 N.W. First St.

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