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Last year, Milwaukie made an initial payment to TriMet of $360,099, but how is the city going to pay for the rest of its financial obligation to light-rail construction?

In the coming months, Milwaukie will consider asking voters to pass bond measures to pay for light rail, library renovations, park construction or a combination of projects.

In 2008, city officials signed on to paying TriMet $5 million for the light-rail line under construction. The embattled transit agency promised to open the line in September 2015 from Portland through Milwaukie and to Oak Grove. TriMet renegotiated a payment plan with Milwaukie after it became clear that the city wouldn’t be able to pay within 90 days of the Federal Transit Administration’s 50 percent match to the $1.49 billion total project cost.

City Councilor Dave Hedges saw urgency in the way that Milwaukie’s payments balloon to TriMet, from $192,000 this year to $364,875 as the final installment in 2031. He only voted for the revised agreement with TriMet last June, he reminded other elected officials at the March 21 study session, with the understanding that the city would give citizens the choice between service cuts and paying more taxes.

“If (City) Council hadn’t agreed to that choice, I wouldn’t have voted to pay TriMet,” Hedges said.

Mayor Jeremy Ferguson, speaking freely for the first time since leaving employment at TriMet, expressed “frustration” in dealing with an agreement that was originally negotiated by former city councilors. Ferguson advocated engaging the community, as much as possible and as soon as possible, to get citizens involved with understanding the budget crunch facing the city and possible ballot-measure solutions.

“About the furthest we can punt this (ballot measure) is May of next year,” Ferguson said. “It’s been punted too much already.”

As part of Ferguson’s engagement strategy, city officials will be considering reinstatement of their Pilot newsletter, which used to be sent to all residents before last year’s round of cuts.

More budget cuts loom

TriMet reduced the city’s obligation to a principal owed of $4.1 million in consideration of permitting fees that Milwaukie agreed to forgo. But a big jump to the city’s annual TriMet payment schedule occurs between 2016 and ‘17, going from $219,075 to $307,600.

With interest, Milwaukie’s total payments to TriMet will exceed $6 million. However, as part of spinoff projects necessary to install light rail, TriMet is building such items as sewer lines and sidewalks in Milwaukie valued “well in excess” of the $5 million, city officials note.

Milwaukie City Manager Bill Monahan predicted that the city can make the payment for this year and next year without eroding its ending fund balance, but the payments would quickly lead to an unsustainable situation in following years. Monahan has been identifying additional positions that could remain unfilled at the city, along with further “structural rearrangements” of staffing. In November, after a minor league baseball development failed to come together as hoped, city officials reassigned four positions and redirected resources toward completing permitting and construction at Riverfront Park.

Monahan recommended that City Council consider a bond measure for May 2014 at the latest, or it could be too late to stave off the type of city staffing cuts affecting delivery of basic services to many citizens.

“We can’t do it for the long term for facility needs that require attention,” Monahan said.

Strategy for measures

The city has more than seven months (ballot title due Sept. 5) to consider a measure for the November ballot.

Councilor Scott Churchill advocated “getting some distance” from Clackamas County’s questions to voters in May because of the “potential backwash that might occur around the county’s two initiatives.”

After other councilors expressed worries about Clackamas County’s lawsuit with TriMet and the county’s next round of ballot measures, Hedges argued the city doesn’t “know what rabbit they’re going to pull out of the hat next” and needs to think about its own needs.

“We can’t let ourselves be controlled by what the county’s going to do,” Hedges said.

Councilor Mike Miller advocated that funding for a renovated library should be the first bond measure the city refers to voters.

“You start out with what you feel is the most winnable bond measure, and I don’t think light rail is the most winnable,” Miller said.

Monahan advocated two stages of polling to be considered by City Council in April. The first would gauge citizens’ “appetite” for bond measures, and then ask citizens about combined measures, involving both the library and light rail for example. He estimated the cost of the consultant between $10,000 and $20,000.

“We’ve got plenty of time to have discussion on the makeup of the bond measures,” Monahan said.

Hedges argued that citizens need to know about the consequences of cuts, and for that reason he would support polling. He noted that “citizens of Milwaukie have enough intelligence” to consider what would happen if the measure did not pass and make the right decision.

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