Utility payers will foot $7.50 monthly increase starting Jan. 1 to cut into city budget gap

COURTESY PHOTO: GRESHAM FIRE & EMERGENCY SERVICES - The new fee increase will help prevent massive service cuts to Gresham Fire.Gresham residents will see a monthly fee doubled on their utility bills beginning next year in an effort by city leadership to curb cuts to public safety and parks.

Gresham City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 6, to increase the Police, Fire and Parks fee by $7.50, bringing the new monthly total to $15. The fee increase will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and will expire on June 30, 2022. The lone "nay" vote was cast by Councilor Eddy Morales.

"Two times in the last decade this has been our shortstop solution — I am hesitant to pass this fee one more time and kick the can down the road on solving these problems," Morales said.

One note for community members — the fee often appears bi-monthly on bills. So with the increase, most utility payers will notice a $30 charge every other month.

The fee increase was prompted by a $13.3 million funding gap Gresham is facing through fiscal year 2020-21. Interim City Manager Eric Schmidt highlighted the Police, Fire and Parks fee as a potential way to alleviate some of the financial stress facing the city. Despite the increase in the fee, cuts will still be made to the General Fund, resulting in reductions in service and staffing across all departments. Those decisions have yet to be finalized.

"We are in an untenable situation with the alternative of not passing this — losing more officers and fire engine coverage," said Councilor Jerry Hinton. "We have dire, COVID-related issues we need to deal with as a community."

The Police, Fire and Parks fee was adopted by Gresham City Council in 2012, and made permanent in 2014. The revenue from the fee has been unable to accommodate the needs of all three departments because it was never indexed to adjust for inflation and the shifting needs.

Morales sought to delay the vote to encourage more community feedback. That was shot down due to a desire by the rest of council to begin the process of gearing up to the fee increase, which includes informing the public and figuring out what cuts still need to be made at City Hall.

"We need to make decisions now because if there are going to be layoffs we need to let people know they are coming," said Mayor Karylinn Echols.

Morales was not happy about the regressive nature of the fee, as it hits all income-levels equally. One solutions could be revamping the city utility assistance program. There is currently $160,000 available for community members in need — though last year only 50% of the funds were utilized.

"We need to do a better job getting the word out about the program," said Council President Janine Gladfelter.

Council also stressed the importance of finding a better, more permanent funding solution for public safety and parks. Some backed the idea of bringing another levy before voters, while others have voiced support for a Fire or Parks District.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.