Councilors express doubt in value of purchasing, planting permanent holiday tree for $14,000

PMG FILE PHOTO - A bid to pave and revamp the parking lot just south Mayors Square between Southeast Dora Street and Buxton Road came in significantly higher than expected, which will likely delay the project.  After an extended summer break since its July 9, meeting, the Troutdale City Council reconvened Tuesday, Aug. 27, to discuss items ranging from SummerFest and the city's Christmas trees to parking lots and adjusting the city's fee schedule.

At the regular meeting, held at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Operations Center, 234 S.W. Kendall Court, the council went along with a proposal to move the date of the popular SummerFest from the third weekend of July to the second.

The 2020 event is set to take place Saturday, July 11.

As Amy Machesic, event host of the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce explained, the change avoids conflicting with other larger-scale local events, including the annual Highland Games at the Mt. Hood Community College campus.

Another presentation by Tim Seery, the city's parks and facilities superintendent, concerned purchasing and planting a noble fir tree in Mayor's Square park to serve as a permanent downtown Christmas/holiday tree.

The tree would require a 9-foot diameter well in the back of the small park on Historic Columbia River Highway, behind the iconic swimming-trout fountain.

The $14,000 proposal, intended to dovetail with a $400,000 project to pave and revamp the gravel public parking lot on Second Avenue near Mayor's Square, prompted councilors' concerns involving cost, how tree growth might affect the park, and the move away from purchasing a locally grown holiday tree each fall.

Seery said the noble fir was selected because it is a slow-growth tree that could serve the city for 30 to 40 years, reach 35 to 60 feet and would "do well in the East Wind."

Noting that the council voted down a similar proposal about three years ago, Councilor Glenn White said many of the same concerns remain.

"I'm concerned it could be in the way. It will take more and more valuable space in downtown," he said. "I like the smell of a fresh-cut tree myself."

Councilor Dave Ripma raised similar questions.

"It's a laudable idea," he said. "But the tree will only be the right size for a short amount of time. We would have to replace it before long ... I worry about it being symbolically nice, but not necessarily the best use of taxpayers' money."

The council asked Seery to address the concerns and learn more about what other communities do regarding planted holiday trees before returning for further discussion.

"We want to find out from other cities that have (planted) Christmas trees how they manage problems of them growing bigger while looking at other location options," City Manager Ray Young said on Wednesday, Aug. 28. "We'll report back in a month or two and let (council) know what we learned."

Affordable parking

The proposal to pave and revamp the Mayor's Square parking lot also is on hold. A bid for the project came in at $798,000, nearly twice the $400,000 the city had budgeted. The Second Avenue lot — with entrances from Southeast Dora Street and Southeast Buxton Road — has provided temporary parking since Troutdale's former Police Department at 141 S.E. Dora Ave., was demolished in 2013.

The mostly gravel-surfaced lot will be paved, and bicycle racks will be installed, Troutdale Public Works Director Fred Ostler said last spring. Plans call for creating around 38 head-in parking spaces including three Americans with Disability Act-accessible parking spots.

The project seeks to increase downtown parking, including easy access and handicap-accessible spaces, improve the lot's appearance and possibly include amenities such as a bicycle shelter.

"If we can't afford those things," Young said on Wednesday, "we may have to finance through other ways."

Keeping up with fees

The final item the council discussed Tuesday night involved the city's fees-and-charges schedule, which hasn't seen a comprehensive update since June 2008.

Each city department has reviewed current fees to determine if existing charges reflect the cost of staff time required to perform particular requests. Departments recommended changes, including decreases as well as increases, new fees and deleting obsolete charges. Proposed changes would affects tasks like making copies; fulfilling records requests; processing business license applications, parking and traffic violations; Public Works department permits and building rental fees.

"The cost of doing business has gone up," Ray Young said, noting increased expenses for salaries, employee health insurance, gasoline for equipment and other areas. "And we haven't adjusted."

Several councilors and Mayor Casey Ryan expressed reservations about some of the proposed increases and asked that parts of the report be streamlined to make before-and-after fees clearer.

"I'm very sensitive to the amount that fees have increased since I've been on council," Ryan said. "At some point we're going to have to stop.

"We've got buildings that are empty downtown," he added. "Sometimes we can't have champagne fees on a beer budget."

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