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If approved, monthly $7.50 fee for all Gresham households and businesses could take effect in January/February with a levy vote in May 2014

Gresham city councilors will vote on Tuesday, Dec. 4, on whether to charge every household and business in the city $7.50 a month to avoid more cuts to police, fire and parks services.

If approved, the fee would go into effect in late January or early February, appearing on utility bills.

Gresham City Manager Erik Kvarsten recommended on Tuesday, Nov. 20, that the council approve the fee on a temporary 17-month basis while city staff prepares a levy for residents to vote on in May 2014. Such a levy would generate the $3.5 million a year the fee would also generate but would be in place for five years.

If voters approve the levy, it would replace the fee starting in July 2014. What it would cost residents remains to be seen, but Kvarsten said a levy would be at least $1 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value.

The proposed fee is in response to the city’s long struggle to fund services with one of the lowest property tax rates in the state.

Gresham residents narrowly defeated a public safety levy in 2008, which marked the first year of the global economic downturn.

Forecasts for property-tax revenue show a decline — the first since the recession began four years ago — and that decline is expected to continue.

Mayor Shane Bemis’s proposed fee would charge every business and household in the city — including apartments — $7.50 a month, raising $3.5 million to prevent further cuts to public safety. Ninety-five percent would fund police and fire services, with 5 percent funding park maintenance.

The fee would be added to utility bills for businesses and all households — apartments, duplexes, rental houses and owner-occupied dwellings — in Gresham because all businesses and households, not just property-tax paying homeowners, benefit from police and fire service.

Residents who attended five town hall meetings in September and October complained that the proposed fee is regressive — it’s the same for a multimillion-dollar corporation as a single parent living in poverty. They also complained about the possibility of city councilors approving the fee without a public vote. Citizens also suggested the fee be capped.

As part of Kvarsten's recommendation, he suggested adding a one-time yearly business license surcharge for companies with more than 50 employees. Such companies would pay an extra $2 per every employee in excess of 50.

He also recommended creating a financial assistance program for low-income residents who would struggle to pay the fee and scaling back the city's rental home inspection program to lessen the fee's impact. A three-tier approach also could be created to phase the fee in for apartment complexes and to account for the city's 4.1 percent vacancy rate.

City councilors commented on how thoughtful and balanced Kvarsten's proposal was because it addressed all of the issues residents raised during the town hall meetings.

In the end, they asked that the city manager's recommendations be added to the Tuesday, Dec. 4, council agenda for a vote.

Bemis said the fee/levy is the most important issue to face the council in the 10 years he's served. “Some people will never be happy with this,” he said, while others have offered to pay even more. “Residents recognize that closing a fire station is unacceptable.”

And while the city has done a good job of cutting services and positions to mask the financial crisis it's facing, at some point those constraints start to break the system. “That's where the city is at,” Bemis said.

“We cannot close one fire station and lose one life,”said Councilor David Widmark, who did not run for re-election and whose days on the council are numbered. “Not on my watch.”

If you go

What: Gresham City Council vote on a monthly $7.50 fee to prevent more cuts to fire, police and parks service, as well as on a possible levy to come before voters in May 2014

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4

Where: Gresham Council Chambers in the public safety and school building at 1331 N.W. Eastman Parkway

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