Council votes to raise rates

Benny Westcott

At its Sept. 26 meeting at City Hall, the Sweet Home City Council passed a number of rate increases: a 3% increase for sewer, a $1 increase for stormwater, and a 3% increase for water.

“This is a way to sustainably, moderately increase rates that will not too negatively impact the majority of our community,” City Manager Kelcey Young said. “Particularly with the wastewater treatment plant, we are at the crossroads where it is time to either fund it or just let these plans sit and have our wastewater treatment plant inevitably fail. And we’re at that point where we’re starting to already get those concerns from DEQ [the Department of Environmental Quality]. We are suggesting what we consider to be the bare minimum in order to keep our city still able to function and in order to have the type of utilities that can sustainably provide services to our community and continue to allow growth, and that also brings in more economic revenue in that the houses’ property values are not decreasing because of it.”

The city is taking out a loan for wastewater treatment plant improvements and will need to pay it back.

“We’ve tried as best as we can over the next four or five years to moderately grow your rates so you don’t have to do a large spike in 2029, when that debt service comes due,” Finance Director Matt Brown said. “It’s a slow, moderate increase that we think is acceptable from the city standpoint of what’s sustainable, and so you won’t have huge spikes like you’ve had in the previous 10 to 15 years.”

Councilor Lisa Gourley said succinctly “It sucks,” adding “It’s costing us a lot of money, and it’s going to keep costing us a lot of money. But I think we’re getting there. And it’s better to do baby steps because of the other increases on our community that we’ve had to make tonight.”

Brown said “Doing nothing over the next two, three, four, five years, will get you right back into having those large spikes of 9%, 12%, 25%, because you’ve put it off so long. The capital improvement projects are not getting any cheaper in the future, so you’re forced to have those huge increases to pay for projects that you haven’t been able to save up for over time with those moderate increases.”

“It’s never a fun time to pass rates,” he added. “But I would request you to consider that you are not having to raise rates 9%, 20%, 48%, as past councils have done.”

Councilor Dave Trask said of the rates “I don’t like raising them. Nobody does, I don’t think. But there just isn’t anything else you can do. If we don’t do that, we could be in trouble, again.”

Mayor Susan Coleman stressed that the city is showing restraint in the increases, saying “There’s many projects that we know that need to be done that have not been included in this plan because we don’t want to harm our residents as far as those rates go.”

The stormwater rate increase passed 7-0. There’s been two stormwater rate increases in the city since 2004, one in 2008 and another in 2021.

“This is something that we have to do, not something that we want to do,” Councilor Angelita Sanchez said. “And we won’t be able to protect our community if we don’t.”

The other two rate increases passed 6-1, with Councilor Dylan Richards passing the dissenting vote in both cases.

Sanchez thanked city staff for making the rate increases “such small bites.”

She noted “It could be a lot more. I know you guys have worked really hard to try to make it as palatable and easy for our residents as possible.”

Sanchez offered an idea for helping people who would be most affected by the rate increases. “It’s really important to me that we have some sort of safety net for the people that are most impacted; fixed income, seniors, people that are working families,” she said. “So I really hope that we can set something aside for folks like that.”

Also at the meeting, the council:

-Voted to approve the purchase of two shower/bathroom trailers from Elk Creek Trailers for $133,972 and one laundry trailer from NRT Specialty Trailers for $41,414.

The purchases come after Young worked with Linn County and Community Services Consortium to obtain federal funding that can be used on the city’s efforts to fight homelessness. One shower/bathroom trailer will be placed at the Sweet Home Police Department, while the other one will be placed at the Family Assistance and Resource Center’s Managed Outreach and Community Resource Facility, along with the laundry trailer.

The council also agreed, during a special meeting the next day, to approve a contract with a to-be-determined security contractor for security services at the FAC facility, which would also be covered under the federal funding.

Under the agreement with FAC, the city is obligated to provide security at the site. The city had previously entered into a contract with KnightHawk Security for this work, but that company dissolved, which forced the city to issue another request for proposals for security services.

-Saw Coleman present Young with a plaque reading “With sincere appreciation we hereby present Kelcey Young with this award for a stellar first year as Sweet Home, Oregon city manager.” Young has been with the city for one year as of Oct. 1.

“I think she’s done an excellent job,” Coleman said.

She went over some of the things Young has accomplished.

“She dove into a mess and immediately began to reconcile past monthly bank statements for a year prior to her arrival,” Coleman said. “She also began to work on the audit, which was also behind. She simplified and cut our budget by about $1.5 million. She worked side by side with FAC to get the managed facility opened and to clean up our unmanaged homeless problem. She’s networked with county and regional leaders and has garnered a $610,000 grant to reimburse the city for their work and also help with other improvements. She has worked tirelessly to secure funding for the Mahler Water Reclamation Facility and spearheaded the Paint The Town project, acquiring the support of both Miller Paint and Fitzpatrick Painting. She instituted a 4/10 work week, which has increased staff morale and given working individuals like myself more access to City Hall as far as being open earlier and later. And she has worked to improve our code enforcement by abating several properties.”

Sanchez said “I’m so thankful for all that you’ve done for our city. You really deserve [the award]. We’d be in a mess if you weren’t here.”

-Heard from local resident Tina Naumann about how her friend Judith Moulton was removed from her home, a former church at 1333 13th Ave., because it was condemned by the city.

Naumann said that Moulton’s in a cleaner environment now. “Having her come out of her home has been a huge blessing for us, to see that she is better, in a safe place and not going to be in harm,” she said. “Now she’s getting health care and is able to go to her doctors, so she can be a healthy person. She was falling through the cracks and had some issues mentally that needed to be addressed. And I don’t know if they are being addressed, but she’s now in a safe place.”

“It is posted no trespassing,” Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said of the property. “No one is allowed in there. We are working with the owner, and if there is anything she wants removed from there and she has someone to do it, if we know someone that’s authorized we can allow them in temporarily to get what needs to be retrieved. But it is not a structure that we want anyone in.”

-Voted to close and block off to vehicular traffic 14th Avenue from the Ames Creek Bridge to the south side of the intersection at Grape Street from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 7 for the 17th Annual Harvest Festival at Sankey Park. Residential access will be allowed.