WARRENTON — Leaders from the city planning, police, public works and finance departments came forth Tuesday night in advance of budget season with requests for around $500,000 in new staff, building remodels and equipment they argue are necessary to keep pace with the city’s rapid growth.
But the city only expects another $81,000 in property tax revenue.
City leaders and staff, agreeing that growth has not paid for itself, are proposing a host of new and increased fees and other measures to help become more self-sustaining.
City Manager Linda Engbretson, searching for direction from the City Commission, suggested the city raise franchise fees — the rent paid by companies for the use of public rights of way — for sewer and water delivery.
“Most of our franchise fees are at a 5% or a 7%” rate,” Engbretson said. “If we increased sewer and water by 2% — right now it’s at 3% — to a 5%, that would bring in a little over $100,000.”
Police Chief Mathew Workman argued that public safety funding hasn’t kept pace with the growth of the city. City commissioners quickly warmed to his idea of raising fees on people convicted of traffic violations and other crimes, along with other administrative fees related to the city’s Municipal Court. Commissioners also appeared receptive to Workman’s idea of charging a public safety fee to businesses based on calls for service.
“When you talk about growth paying for growth, I can tell you for a fact that Walmart sure as hell didn’t pay for the police force to be out there,” Commissioner Rick Newton said.
The Municipal Court has been at capacity because of Walmart, Fred Meyer and other retail stores referring shoplifting cases, along with increased caseloads related to the region’s homeless population, Workman said. He asked for an additional 1 1/2 positions on the administrative side to help with increased caseloads, the replacement of at least three aging police cruisers removed from service and a remodel of the cramped police station inside City Hall.
Kevin Cronin, the community development director, called for a surcharge on planning applications to help pay for a new part-time permit technician to handle more basic development review tasks.
“That’s 75% of my time,” he said. “That’s not where I want to be, because that does not help us achieve your strategic priorities.”
Mayor Henry Balensifer and Commissioner Mark Baldwin called for Cronin’s department to be made self-sustaining by looking at the fee structures. The department only took in $30,000 in fees over the past year even after an increase in fees, while his salary alone is nearly $150,000, Cronin said.
“That department should pay for itself, considering the growth of the city,” Balensifer said.
Collin Stelzig, the public works director, asked for two additional part-time employees to help maintain the city’s 27 buildings, 11 parks and other land holdings.
“We own these properties,” Stelzig said. “We should be looking at them. Are there homeless people (living there)? Is somebody dumping stuff on them?”
The City Commission agreed that the city’s Parks Board would come back with a list of recommendations on how to better monetize the city’s public spaces. Newton pointed out Carruthers Memorial Park, where an off-leash dog park is heavily utilized and the city suspects many users are coming from Astoria.
April Clark, the city’s finance director, asked to make a part-time accounting clerk full time to accommodate growth, along with a new phone system, carpeting and painting inside the 20-year-old City Hall. She also cautioned that the city budgeted to end this fiscal year in June with $345,000, about half of the two months of operating expenses recommended that governments keep on hand.
And the asks from city staff don’t include the Warrenton Fire Department, which only recently added a new fire chief, nor expected increases in pension and health care costs.
Warrenton has prided itself on serving residents with one of the lowest property tax rates in the region. But with property tax rates controlled by state law and unlikely to go up significantly, the city has to focus on raising revenue locally, Balensifer said.
“Much of the growth going on isn’t paying for itself,” Newton said. “It’s eating us all the time.”