City mulls multiple tax hikes Food and gas taxes, higher utility rates announced

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

May 11, 2005

The Hood River City Budget Committee is squeamish about balancing the 2005-06 budget with multiple fee and tax increases.

But the only other option appears to be cutting personnel and even safety programs — such as police and fire services — and running a large deficit.

Bob Francis, city manager, said the biggest spike in expenses is the personnel costs associated with 60 staffers. He said the city’s share of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) alone will be more than half a million dollars, with another $145,000 expected next year. In addition, health care costs have risen to 18 percent this year.

“We’re trying to cut expenses wherever we can but when three-fourths of your staff is unionized, it’s a tough nut to crack,” said Francis.

Although the city has added $6 million to its budget for new capital construction projects, $4 million of that money has already been banked from a low-interest federal loan. Steve Everroad, city finance director, said grant applications are being filled out for the remaining $2 million, so while the budget has risen from $17,048,849 to $23,566,976, it really contains only a $518,127 increase for operating costs. However, the existing $500,000 budget deficit will also carry over into the upcoming fiscal year.

“In a nutshell right now, that’s the budget picture. I wish I could paint a rosy picture on it but there are some things in there that are really going to affect the way we do business,” said Bob Francis, city manager, after delivering the budget news.

On the list of proposed new charges is a three cents per gallon gasoline tax, about $20 annually for the average motorist, and a two percent food and beverage tax at full-service restaurants. Francis expects revenue from these combined taxes to bring the city an additional $400,000 per year. He said these taxes are one way to get visitors to help pay for use of the city roadways and utilities.

“I think those will be the two most controversial decisions that you have to make,” he said.

Other possible user fee increases could be implemented to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements. These include a street maintenance fee of about $1 per month for each household, and a business tax of about $100 annually. Water and sewer rate hikes could follow later this year, along with a new fee for stormwater maintenance, but those figures have not yet been confirmed.

Francis also wants the council to approve a raise in downtown parking fees at the four city lots. The 249 people who currently pay between $15-$25 at one of these lots will most likely see an increase to a flat $30.

“If you adopt this budget and our revenue comes in as expected and our expenditures go as we anticipate then we’ll be pretty close to resolving our deficit this year,” said Francis.

But the council, taking on the role of budget committee, gave a collective groan at the choice left before them. For two hours the elected body fielded ideas about how to cut costs, such as reducing staffing levels, before raising fees.

Finally, Councilor A.J. Kitt made the motion to accept the budget and said, “My feeling has always been that paying taxes is the price of freedom, the price of living in a great place.”

However, he qualified that statement by reiterating that, even if the budget was accepted as written, it should be scrutinized to see if at least some of the fees could be avoided.

“It seems to me there’s so much meat in this that we need to schedule at least one other meeting and sit down and grind it out,” said Mayor Linda Rouches, acting in a dual role as chair of the budget committee.

Councilor Carrie Nelsen was the only member of the elected body not to vote in favor of the proposed budget, which must be adopted by June 30. She was joined in that veto by Susan Froelich, a citizen member of the budget committee.

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