WARRENTON — Leaders are considering a new fee based on the size of a property’s water meter to help cover increasing police and fire costs in the rapidly growing city.

Warrenton was already facing a budget gap from commercial sprawl not covering the costs of delivering utilities, staff reviews and policing businesses. The City Commission recently voted to increase the penalties for traffic violations and other crimes, along with other administrative fees related to the city’s Municipal Court.

Walmart lineup

Warrenton is exploring a public safety fee to cover the cost of increased calls at businesses like Walmart.

Commissioners placed a moratorium on utility increases because of the coronavirus pandemic, but have appeared receptive to the idea of charging a public safety fee given the calls for service to police and fire.

The city dispatched Police Chief Mathew Workman to research what other cities do. The seven cities that responded based their public safety fees on the size of water meters, he said.

“That would mean a hotel, or the (RV) park or something like that, would have a more substantial cost,” Workman told the City Commission on Tuesday. “They would probably pass that on to the patron.”

Basing the fee on police calls would disadvantage small businesses that generate a lot of calls but cannot absorb costs like Walmart or Fred Meyer, Workman said. Tying the fee to calls would also include nearby traffic stops the city reports at a certain address, he said.

Corvallis charged $12.10 a month for the equivalent of every single-family water meter, costing a homeowner $145 a year. A large grocery store, using the equivalent of four residential meters, paid more than $1,000 a year, while churches or a four-unit residential complex paid $580.

Workman found that Talent, a city of around 6,500 people in southern Oregon, generated around $144,000 per year from public safety fees charged on utilities.

Workman argued that the fee should be borne by residents, businesses and visitors, as all three use police and fire services.

“There is no perfect ideology to use to determine the amount of a public safety fee,” he wrote in a report to the City Commission. “I do believe that charging large businesses more is fair, but I know that those costs will be passed onto the customers, which also includes residents.”

Playing into the potential need for a public safety fee is the city’s existing police operations levy, based on property taxes and bringing in around $180,000 a year. The five-year levy was last approved by voters in 2018.

“If for some reason the operations levy failed or didn’t go through, this would be the backup step, I would think, and the appropriate time to really jump that in to maintain a police force,” Mayor Henry Balensifer said.

But the City Commission has tasked staff with looking at alternative sources of revenue, and property tax-based levies don’t capture nonprofits and other organizations, City Manager Linda Engbretson said.

Commissioner Rick Newton said such a fee is necessary to help relieve locals of the cost of services for visitors.

Commissioner Mark Baldwin recommended exempting properties with small water meters to take the burden off the backs of residential customers, unless they’re running commercial rentals.

Balensifer said it’s a good time to start having such a conversation.

“Given the current situation, that’s probably not what we’re going to do right now,” the mayor said. “But it needs to be a conversation on the table.”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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