Council stands fast on waiver

City Council members stood firm Tuesday, Aug. 25, on the city’s decision not to grant aid to a group of local residents who are building a home for a disabled man.

In a contentious hearing, punctuated by displays of anger from audience members, council members said they were concerned that granting a request by Ron Moore, backed by Community Chapel, to waive building fees for the project would set precedent they may not want to meet later.

Moore and some 40 other contractors, friends and other benefactors are building a home for Dirrell Harper after the mobile home and roof structure he lived in while confined to a wheelchair due to a condition in which his body produces an excess of uric acid, which crystallizes in his joints. The council told Moore on Aug. 11 that it could not grant the requested fee waiver and telling him to apply for a $500 Community Grant Program Award. The council has set up the program to help those involved in public service or charitable projects to cover fees. It granted two awards Aug. 25 to two other organizations.

Former Councilman and Mayor Dave Holley brought the matter of the waiver for Harper’s home to the council during the hearing of petitions portion of the Aug. 25 meeting, telling council members that he initially sided with their decision of Aug. 11 not to grant the waiver.

“Then I had other thoughts,” Holley said. He noted that Linn County Commissioners waived building fees recently in an attempt to jump-start local building and thus stimulate the local economy.

Holley told the council that waiving the building fees for the Harper project would not cost the city anything, adding that such requests “are few and far in between” and this one would benefit a large group of volunteers, not just one man

He said he understood that the decision was made based on council policy, but argued that this was an example where policy can be shifted, changed.

Holley acknowledged that the council made a “tough decision” to deny Moore’s initial request, “but you denied it for the wrong reasons,” he added.

“The circumstances of this particular project make it necessary for the council to deviate from its normal policy,” Holley said.

Moore showed the council photos of progress on the building project, which went from slab to completed framing in a week.

“Most of these people don’t even know Dirrell Harper,” he said. “They just want to be there.”

He said the 40-some volunteers on the project, which, he noted, included some city employees who donated their vacation time, would be “disappointed if the council doesn’t reconsider.”

In response to a request for comment from Mayor Craig Fentiman, City Attorney Robert Snyder said he has researched the issue and sees a problem with using public money to benefit a private individual, no matter how deserving. He said “state, if not federal laws” require that money spent by the city has to benefit the community “as a whole.”

“You have to justify it by the community as a whole benefiting,” Snyder said.

Mike Melcher, who has been one of the key players in the Harper project, told the council that the increased value of the new home will benefit the city.

“What do you think the city’s going to benefit, going from a 66-foot single-wide trailer to a beautiful 1,200-square-foot home?”

he asked, adding that he predicts the city will regain its money “in one year.”

City Manager Craig Martin, responding to council questioning, said the county waivers were “backfilled” by money from the state Lottery.

Moore questioned how the council could waive fees for Habitat for Humanity homes in recent years.

“Those houses were for individuals,” he said.

Fentiman said the city’s policy has “evolved, changed” and the council has reached a point where it has decided not to grant fee waivers any more.

An angry Moore said he was encouraged to apply for a Community Grants Program award by the council at his last visit.

“I jumped through the hoops, I filled out the application,” he said. “You all knew it would be denied because it was for an individual.”

He said the council should “reconsider the fees and realize that this is about more than one person right now.”

After more discussion, Fentiman said it was simply the decision of the council not to waive the fees.

“We could waive the fees,” he said. “It goes back to the policy of this council,” at which point Moore got up and walked out of the chambers, followed by several other audience members.

Melcher told the council he wasn’t going to “blow up and walk out of here,” but he said the council needed to reconsider.

“Somebody’s got to dig a little deeper if we don’t get that $500. That’s a community benefit.”

Snyder said that the money in question is public funds, “whether it’s taxes or fees.”

He said even if a waiver or grant is given to one person who might be “totally, totally deserving,” it would violate “not just city policy, but state and federal policy.”

“This is to build one guy’s house,” Snyder said. “You have to come up with standards for the next guy who walks in and says, ‘My mother is a cripple and her house just burned down.'”

Melcher responded, “This is not an individual effort. He didn’t even want us to do this.”

Council member Jim Bean requested that Snyder research whether the city can legally make a Community Grants Program award to the Harper project.

Melcher ended the discussion with a final challenge to the council.

“I tell you, I’d be tickled to death with $500,” he said. “Don’t make a mistake this time. Making a mistake is not helping him.”

In its next item of business, the council approved, without comment, $500 grants to assist with building fees for the Sweet Home High School Booster Club and the Sweet Home School District Community Tennis Court project.

The Booster Club’s request in June for a fee waiver for construction of a new concession stand at Husky Field was what prompted the council to enact the Community Grants Program.

The tennis courts are under construction between the varsity baseball field and the bus barn, along 18th Avenue.

In other action, the council:

– Approved the purchase of a new $128,020 closed-circuit TV van to be used to inspect and troubleshoot water, storm drain and sewage system problems.

The city’s CCTV van was “the talk of the valley when I came here 11 years ago,” Public Works Director Mike Adams told the council. Now, he said, it is “old and make-shift” and is “out-dated and cost-prohibitive.”

He said the city was able to piggyback on the bid process used by Lincoln City for a new CCTV van, and is able to purchase a 2009/2010 Ford E450 16-foot box van with three 22-inch TV monitors and other improvements for $128,020, which allows Sweet Home to legally skip a time-consuming bid process that would have resulted in the same outcome as Lincoln City’s.

He said the van will be used at least weekly for inspections, data gathering and fixing minor problems.

Council Member Scott McKee said he has ridden along with the city crew in the old van.

“I know the crew will appreciate this,” he said. “I’ve seen what they have to put up with.”

– Appointed Chuck Begley to the city Budget Committee for a term to expire Aug. 24, 2012. Begley, who has worked in local government finance for 28½ years, including 20 1/2 years as finance director for the Lebanon Fire District, is retired and has lived in Sweet Home for a year.

– Renewed an agreement with Grove Mueller & Swank PC for auditing services for the city. The accounting firm has been performing the annual state-required audit for several years, and has been “thorough, accurate and timely for each audit,”

Martin reported to the council.

All the votes were unanimous, with councilors Bean, McKee, Laure Fowler, Gourley, Greg Mahler and Fentiman present. Eric Markell was absent.