Fee goes into effect Jan. 1; fee will sunset in two years; research to be done regarding tax district

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - In order to sustain the St. Helens recreation program, the St. Helens City Council approved a $2 fee for city residents, which will be assessed on city ulitility bills starting in January. The fee will sunset in two years, but city staff are expected to research ways to establish a taxing district or other long-term funding plan during those two years. St. Helens residents will see a $2 fee on their monthly utility bills starting in January to help pay for the city's recreation program.

The St. Helens City Council voted unanimously Wednesday, Aug. 7, to approve a $2 community recreation and parks fee to be implemented Jan. 1. The fee will sunset two years later, on Dec. 31, 2021.

By collecting a $2 fee from each household in St. Helens, the city expects to collect about $160,000 each year to support the recreation program.

In 2018, the St. Helens City Council and St. Helens School District embarked on a partnership to create a recreation program to offer activities for children and adults throughout the year.

In the first year of its inception, the program has grown and many people, including City Council members, school district officials and program users, have praised its positive community impact.

Generating funding to support the program long-term has been a challenge, however. During the 2018-19 fiscal year, the city of St. Helens secured grant funds to help support the program, but City Finance Director Matt Brown explained that counting on grants as the only financing tool poses difficulties from a budgeting perspective.

In the last year, the City Council held public forums to gather feedback on whether or not the community would support the approval of a recreation program fee.

Generally, residents who attended the forums or responded to a city questionnaire administered earlier this year indicated they were supportive, and indicated their willingness to pay a small fee to keep the program running.

Some residents voiced concerns, however, about how fees would be implemented, and asked if city residents would pay discounted fees for certain programs while those outside of the city would pay full price for classes that incur a cost to participate.

During numerous council discussions, City Councilor Doug Morten and Mayor Rick Scholl supported the idea of having a small fee per household, but were also interested in having it sunset after a specific period of time. They also suggested looking at establishing a special district to collect taxes which could support the program in the long run.

When the city councilors approved the fee Wednesday, they also agreed to have staff conduct research over the next two years toward establishing a special taxing district so the program can become self-sustaining.

Brown had initially suggested the council implement a $3 fee, with $2 going toward the program and $1 helping pay for a research consultant. On Wednesday, he noted that the smaller fee, which most of the council and the mayor favored, means most likely some of that work would be done by city staff rather than a consultant.

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