Committee approves budget

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home Budget Committee on Wednesday, April 20, approved the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which includes a notable tax reduction. 

Mayor Greg Mahler and city councilors Diane Gerson, Susan Coleman, Lisa Gourley, Dylan Richards, Angelita Sanchez, and Dave Trask were present, as were Citizen Budget Committee members Josh Thorstad, Kenneth Hamlin, Robert Briana and David Lowman. Derek Dix was absent.  

The committee voted to reduce the police local option levy to $6.30 per $1,000, instead of the full $7.85 approved by 71% of the voters. The decision reduces the public safety levy by 20%. The sole dissenters to the levy reduction, which passed with a 9-2 vote, were Richards and Lowman. 

Approximately 85% of Sweet Home’s taxable properties will see that money returned to their pockets. The other 15%, still under compression, will see it go to two taxing groups, the Sweet Home Public Library and the Linn County Law Enforcement Levy. 

The average tax savings for the year will be about $170 per property owner, Neish said. 

The decision comes as the estimated Sweet Home Police Department fund balance at the beginning of fiscal year 2022-23 is predicted to be $3 million, which is enough to cover 12 months of the department’s expenditures, Neish said. The council had previously set the goal of having a six-month fund balance reserve in each of the city’s funds with personnel. 

According to Neish, the proposal is to slowly bring the police levy rate back up over five years, when the department would be sitting at six months of fund balance, a level targeted by the council. He added that even at that point, after five years, the police levy still wouldn’t be back to the full levy rate. 

“What we have asked the community for is funding to ensure the police department can operate at its full capacity. And we can do that with a reduced levy,” Neish said.

“I think that if we take a shorter levy amount right now, and next year something happens – say, property tax values fall through the floor – there is room for us to demonstrate that we are trying to be good stewards with citizen dollars. So if we have to bring it back, we have a reason as to why we would need to bring it back. I think this is being transparent. This is being good stewards with taxpayer dollars. This says we will only take it if we need to take it.” 

Much discussion followed. 

“I think what’s presented here is just staff trying to be good stewards of the finances that we have in front of us,” Police Chief Jeff Lynn said. “What’s down on paper is what we believe would be satisfactory to maintain the services we provide. That’s simply our attempt to be solid stewards and fiscally responsible.” 

“With the times the way they are right now, people are getting hit so hard with everything,” Briana said. “And if the forecast is that we can still get by five years from now when the next levy comes up, I think it’s good for the community to know that we’re giving back to them. I know (Lynn) wouldn’t propose this at all if he didn’t think he could take care of it.” 

“(The people) voted for it because they had the police’s backs. And by giving it back, we’re saying we’ve got your back,” Gourley said. “We’re saying thanks for having our backs, but we don’t need all of it.” 

“I think this is our opportunity to say to the people, we love our police department, and our police department has everything they need plus more, so we’re going to give it back,” Gerson said. 

“It’s not a huge sum of money that people will save on their taxes, but I think just the idea speaks volumes to the citizens of Sweet Home,” Coleman said. 

“It’s probably a good thing for the people to know that we’re being good with our money that they gave us,” Trask said. 

Lowman, who voted against the reduced levy, said, “I like to get extra money back, but if you give them the money back, then they’re going to think ‘What are they going to raise then? If they’re giving me this money back, what is going to get raised? Are they going to raise something that’s actually going to be more than what they’re giving me back?’ 

“I feel that we should leave it as what the voters actually voted for,” he continued. “Because you give back, and then after this all runs out in a couple years, we have to say to the voters, ‘Well, we need the money back again.’ That kind of upsets the people. They’ve already approved it. They’ve already put into their budget that they’re going to pay this money.” 

The move comes amid staff shortages at the department. 

“The police department has had some significant vacancies over the last few years, through no fault necessarily of its own,” Neish said. “There are many that are getting out of law enforcement entirely. We’ve had only a couple move to other policing organizations in the state. Primarily it’s been people moving on to other career fields.” 

Sweet Home Public Library 

Neish said the library’s budget focus in fiscal year 2022-2023 is on preparing for a potential new building. (See related story on page 1.) 

“We’ve had some initial conversations about a new library,” he said. “There’s still some work that would need to be done as far as council review and approval of a new library, but this budget proposal sets aside a significant chunk of dollars to start that process based on community feedback, the library advisory board, and some initial conversations with the city council.” 

Roughly $100,000 is proposed for an architect to begin preliminary drawings. Additionally, $290,000 in transfers out have been budgeted to go to the Project and Equipment Reserve. Under this proposal, at the end of the next fiscal year, the library would be sitting on $1.2 million in project money for use toward a new building. 

“We’ve done a lot of work at making sure that if that comes to fruition (plans for a new library), there is money at least to get us started,” Neish said, “and then we can move forward from there.”  

He added that Library Director Megan Dazey had “been hard at work replenishing library resources, and we’ve tried to give her as much money in this next year’s budget as possible to continue to do the great work that the library has done for so many years.” 

Wastewater treatment plant 

The proposed 2022-2023 budget does not include increases in water, sewer or stormwater rates. The city hasn’t changed water rates in three years, and utility fee rates for wastewater haven’t increased since November 2017. Some $11.7 million is budgeted in the 2022-23 proposal for the first phase of construction of a wastewater treatment plant. 

“The project is going to begin in a hurry next year,” Neish said. “We’ve got a lot of money to spend. The schedule is ambitious, and we are hopeful that we will get through as much as we can.” 

The city currently has a $7 million grant from the state, which it received in the 2019-21 biennium. Engineering concerns prevented the city from spending the money at that time, Neish said. Now the state has extended those funds into the current budget cycle, which ends June 30, 2023. Overall, Neish said the city has secured $9 million in funding from the state, and the city’s devoted $7 million of “in-house” funds to the project. 

The city plans to spend almost $24 million as part of phase one construction. Neish said $11.7 million drains that fund, and anything larger will have to be secured through Environmental Protection Agency loans. 

Public Works Director Greg Springman hopes to break ground on the project in September. In the meantime, his department is trying to cut costs as supply prices continue to rise. 

“We’ve tried to cut out steel piping,” he said. “We’re using plastic piping where we can. We have cut, cut, cut this project, without hurting functionality. I’m hearing out there from other cities as well that are in the middle of projects. I heard a $60 million dollar project is now $120 million.” 

Neish doesn’t expect materials costs to decrease. 

“There is a ton of ARPA (American Rescue Plan of 2021) and CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act) infrastructure money out there right now, and governments of all sizes all over the country are doing the very same thing,” he said. “Demand is extremely high, and supply has not kept up with that demand. So as long as those dollars are out there, I don’t anticipate any of these costs coming down. Many municipalities are unfortunately choosing to bail out of their projects, after they have already spent countless time and dollars on getting to a point where they could move forward.” 

The plant’s proposed finish date is May 2025, with the entire project predicted to cost about $52,000,000. 

Fuel station 

About $250,000 is budgeted across various city funding sources to build a fuel station, which Neish said would help the city prepare for disasters. 

“This would allow the city to have fuel on hand in the event that something happens here where we can’t get fuel from stations or fuel deliveries,” he said. “This would provide us with fuel for an extended period of time. If something were to happen today, the police department has about three days of fuel in its vehicles, and then they’d be out, and we would be up a creek, or they would be riding a bike.” 

Neish added that a station would also save in overall costs. 

“We could get the fuel cheaper than what we currently pay for it, because we pay for a premium through another company. This would allow us to get fuel at a different rate and have it on hand,” he said. 

The Police Department has $63,000 budgeted in its fund to cover the cost. Public Works is budgeted to contribute $138,000 to the project, through the Project and Equipment Reserve Fund. The other approximately $50,000 is scheduled to come from the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District. 

Other government agencies in the area would be able to use the fuel and provide the city of Sweet Home with an ongoing revenue stream for its use, according to Nash. Use by other parties, including the Sweet Home School District or the Oregon Department of Transportation, “would allow us to cycle the fuel so we are not sitting on old fuel in those tanks when we need it the most.” 

Lynn said the city began exploring different options for a fuel station six to eight years ago. 

“The key is to keep it in-house so we control it in an emergency situation,” he said. “That way we control our own fuel supply, and we control who has access to it if we do have to start rationing or something such as that. If we’re reliant on others, we may lose that ability of controlling that. The aspect of coming together with a number of different agencies was appealing so that we could lower the costs and have a turnkey service for our fleets for an emergency response.” 

Lynn said the city is considering refurbishing a tank at Public Works or partnering with a fuel company to install tanks. 

“In the end, after the initial expense and recovering that expense, the fuel is significantly cheaper when you’re buying it by a truck load than it is at the pump,” he said. “It’s years and years from recovering from that expense, but there is savings on some level.” 

Neish said city staff has considered installing the tanks on the Public Works yard or on the property behind City Hall. 

Other budget notes 

— $100,000 in total costs are budgeted for a facility for the unsheltered to be run by the Family Assistance and Resource Center (FAC). This includes $80,000 for nighttime security and $20,000 in capital costs to get utilities and other needs to the proposed location east of Bi-Mart. 

— $83,000 in the general fund covers the cost of an agreement and separation with former City Manager Ray Towry, who resigned in February. 

— $170,000 is budgeted in the general fund for parks. According to Neish, this is for work at Hobart Natural Area, the build-out of a park space next to City Hall, two dog parks and minor upgrades at Northside Park.  

— The Project and Equipment Reserve has $200,000 budgeted for police department HVAC units. 

— The Internal Service Fund includes increased costs for the city manager position and benefits. The professional services line item in that fund includes an extra $25,000 for external attorney services, specifically for labor relations. Neish said that the city currently typically “farms out” those services. 

— The budget proposes additional costs of about $10,000 in the finance department to change an accounting technician position to an accountant. 

— The budgeted amount for electricity and natural gas costs have increased 8%. 

— $50,000 is budgeted for City Hall expenses, including the installation of a generator. 

— Neish noted that property/liability costs in the Public Safety Fund have risen significantly. He said that the city’s insurance provider, City and County Insurance Services, has told it to expect a 12% increase in the property and liability rates for the coming fiscal year. Neish said this is the second year of double-digit increases. Additional funds are also budgeted for fuel in the Public Safety Fund. 

— The city received half of its ARPA funds in the current fiscal year, with the other half slated for July 2023. 

— A full-time employee has been added in the streets division for 2023. 

— $16,000 is budgeted in the Project and Equipment Reserve for payments on existing public works vehicles. 

The approved budget now goes to the City Council for review and adoption. A public hearing will be held Tuesday, June 14, at City Hall, which community members can attend in person or virtually at http://sweethomeor.gov.

Comments may be submitted in writing prior to the meeting to City Hall, 3225 Main St., Sweet Home, OR 97386 or by email to City Manager Pro Tem Christy Wurster at [email protected]. The council could potentially adopt the budget at its Tuesday, June 28, meeting.

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