By Terri Harber
Baker City Councilors might waive the sidewalk utility fee for a year or more because of the accumulated surplus in the program.
In June 2012 the city had about $80,000 in sidewalk improvement fees that had not been allocated for sidewalk work, said Jeanie Dexter, the city's finance director.
The program began in 2008. The city charges residents $1 per month, and businesses $2 per month. The city collects about $50,000 each year, and makes 75 percent available as grants to residents to repair or replace existing sidewalks.
The city uses the other 25 percent for sidewalk work or, as is going on now, to replace the steps at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center.
The resolution that instituted the sidewalk fee will expire on June 30 unless councilors opt to renew it.
"I think this has been a very successful program," Councilor Dennis Dorrah said Tuesday. "But we don't need to keep collecting money right now."
Some councilors expressed interest in expanding ways the money could be used. Councilor Clair Button said grants to build sidewalks in areas that don't have them should also be available to property owners as long as they've paid into the fund for a certain amount of time.
City Manager Mike Kee also mentioned that a resident who had to rebuild his home after a vehicle plowed into it also was required to construct sidewalks, at a cost of $10,000, "by no fault of his own."
"I'd hate to see it discontinued," Councilor Barbara Johnson said. "Some of the sidewalks are in very, very bad shape."
She noted that property owners might not be applying for these matching grants - which pay for part but not all of the cost of the work - because of the economy.
"If people are strapped they're not going to apply for a matching grant," Johnson said.
The surplus could be used to fix half of problem areas, she said.
Michelle Owen, the city's public works director, suggested the councilors could make changes to attract more grant seekers. This could include paying more per square foot repaired.
Councilors also could decide to allocate a different percentage of the total fund as property owner grants, Owen said.
Each recipient now could obtain up to $1,250 for one side of a lot, and up to $1,500 for a corner lot with two sides. The rate: $2.50 per square foot.
Changes could be made every year, when the resolution comes up. The main ordinance doesn't need much modification, Owen said.
This past year, 2012, was especially slow for sidewalk repair. Just 2,041.5 feet of sidewalk was improved using money from this fund to offset the overall cost to property owners.
The three previous years were much higher: 2009, 6,104 feet; 2010, 8,481 feet; and 2011, 7,512 feet.
A portion of the fund is used for public sidewalk projects, such as E Street, Geiser-Pollman Park and, as mentioned earlier, in front of the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center on Auburn Avenue.
Brent Smith of Baum Smith LLC, the attorney who represents the city, will review the ordinance and offer suggestions that would be presented during the April 23 meeting.
Johnson didn't vote with the other councilors to have Smith study the ordinance with the idea of temporarily not collecting the fee, because of the poor condition of many sidewalks within the city.
Smith wanted to study the ordinance to see what happens if it were to simply expire.
Annual fee changes
Tuesday's meeting also was an opportunity for councilors to discuss possible fee changes that would begin July 1. Councilors didn't make any decisions on fees Tuesday.
City officials are proposing to increase ambulance fees.
Staff members wanted to emphasize that many people wouldn't have to pay more, such as Medicare, Veterans and Medicaid recipients. These health programs only pay the city a contractually limited amount. The patients would continue paying their specified co-payments.
The hikes would affect primarily those with private insurance and those in car accidents, said Fire Chief Jim Price.
City residents would pay $1,000, an increase from the current $775. Non-residents would be charged $1,500 instead of the current rate of $1,025.
The increase for residents would make the price comparable to the other area ambulance providers.
Button pointed out that Price missed an opportunity to suggest that people who would have to pay more for ambulance service buy city FireMed insurance. It provides ambulance and air transport for a flat annual fee.
City officials also suggest raising the fee for a kennel permit. Earlier this year, councilors refined the rules for owning a large number of dogs or cats by creating procedures for obtaining the permit.
The kennel permit would cost $175 instead of the current $25 - if the increase proposed is approved by the councilors.
Property owners and businesses situated within 600 feet of the proposed kennel permit site would be notified about the planned use. Cost to let these people know about the planned use includes labor, postage and office supplies.
The consumer price index was used to calculate the 1.9 percent increases sought for most cemetery fees as well as the basic residential and commercial water rates and wastewater fees.
A wetlands project is being planned to ensure the city is in line with anticipated state and federal regulation changes in wastewater handling rules.
It would cost the city an estimated $5.5 million to construct a wetlands system.
The councilors will weigh the merits of a more substantial increase for wastewater service later on to finance an upgrade of that system. A rate hike would reduce the amount of money the city would have to borrow.
Some fees charged by the city would decrease. For example, the cemetery would seek less money for weekend burials and to bury children. And rent of the Heilner hangar at Baker City Municipal Airport would be negotiable. Now it's $550 a month.
In other business, the councilors:
andbull; Approved a franchise agreement between the city and LightSpeed Networks Inc., in which the city would receive 7 percent of the company's local gross revenue. LightSpeed is installing fiber optic cable in Baker City to provide improved 4G internet to some of the local cell towers, and offering broadband business access.
andbull; Heard about the original plan to create a grant system that would help pay for neighborhood capital projects. The matter will be revisited after the councilors have time to think about what types of projects they want included.
andbull; Intend to write a letter of support for the Playground Improvement Project. It's trying to obtain a $15,000 grant to help purchase new playground equipment for Geiser-Pollman Park.