By Pat Caldwell
Baker City Mayor Richard Langrell says the city owes him almost $15,000.
City officials contend they don't owe Langrell a cent.
That difference in perception and interpretation is the epicenter of a dispute regarding water and sewer fees, zoning, and property taxes.
"The only thing I've done wrong is try to get along with them (the city)" Langrell said Thursday.
Langrell wants the city to reimburse him $14,907.71 in water and sewer fees he paid during the past several years for his motel, the Always Welcome Inn.
In a Jan. 9 "Letter of Demand" to the city, Langrell's attorney, Rebecca Knapp of Enterprise, asked City Manager Mike Kee to reimburse the money to Langrell.
The storyline in this clash goes back more than 15 years and flared again in 2004 when the city decided to annex Langrell's hotel along with two other landowners' properties that are just east of Interstate 84 near the Campbell Street interchange.
Ordinarily all those properties, once they were annexed into city limits, would be required to pay city property taxes.
However, at the time, the city gave the property owners - including Richard Langrell and his wife, Lynne - the option of avoiding city property taxes for 10 years in exchange for continuing to pay double the normal water and sewer rates.
The city charges the double rate for properties that are connected to the city's water and sewer systems but are outside the city limits. The rationale behind the higher rates is that those properties, being outside the city limits, don't pay property taxes to the city.
Knapp said in an interview Thursday that once the properties were annexed the city had "no authority to do that (continue charging double rates for water and sewer)."
In her letter to the city, Knapp asserts that the Langrells ". . . did not agree, neither expressly or by implication, to pay double the water and sewer rates upon annexation. . ."
Knapp said in her letter that the city insists the Langrells ". . . agreed to pay double water and sewer rates upon annexation to the city in exchange for the city's agreement to waive property taxes on the Langrells' real property for a period of 10 years. There is no basis for any such contention by the city . . ." Knapp wrote.
Langrell said Thursday that the annexation pact did not specify he was to pay double sewer and water fees once his business was brought into the city limits.
"The annexation papers, there was nothing in there about double rates. There's nothing in the city ordinance that allows them to charge double rates (for properties inside the city limits)," he said.
He said there was "talk" at the time of the annexation about an agreement regarding double fees for sewer and water, but nothing specific.
"It was talked about but was never put into any contracts," Langrell said.
But City Attorney Brent Smith said a pact between the city and the Langrells regarding the sewer and water fees does exist.
"There was an agreement. It was a 10-year (property) tax waiver and they'll pay double water and sewer," Smith said.
Smith, in a response to Knapp's letter of demand, listed 10 separate public documents that indicate there was a deal crafted between the city and the Langrells regarding sewer and water fees and property taxes.
"The Langrells would either (1) have City property taxes waived for ten years while continuing to pay double water and sewer rates or (2) pay city property taxes and pay regular water and sewer rates," Smith wrote in his response.
One key public document - the meeting minutes to a Dec. 14, 2004, City Council session - appear to indicate that Langrell was aware of an agreement regarding double sewer rates in exchange for a 10-year property tax waiver.
At the time of the meeting, the city was requesting that the Langrells sign a consent to annexation agreement.
According to the minutes, ". . . He (Langrell) said he would agree to annex their property if City taxes were waived for ten years, but he said he would be willing to continue paying double water and wastewater charges until the ten year waiver of taxes ended. . ."
At that meeting, and after a brief discussion of an agreement between the city and the Langrells from 1998, six years before the city actually proposed the annexation, a motion was made to have city staff craft an agreement with Langrell ". . . including a ten year tax waiver . . ." A unanimous vote in favor was made and the motion was carried.
Langrell conceded on Thursday that his business has not paid property taxes since the motel was annexed in 2004.
"We are still in the 10-year moratorium," he said.
Langrell said the bottom line on the matter is that when his business was placed inside city limits, he believes the city should have ceased charging him double for water and sewer service.
"Once you are annexed the city has no ability to charge double," he said.
For Langrell one critical piece of the overall issue centers on whether there was a written contract that specifically outlined he was to pay double sewer and water rates once his property was annexed.
"If it was in the contract we could pay double there'd be no question. There is nothing in writing. When I asked for written stuff (from the city) they say 'we don't have anything in writing' " he said.
The Langrell/city fee issue also came to the city's attention in late 2007. At that time, the city asked its then-attorney, Dan Van Thiel, to review the issue and give a legal opinion. Van Thiel wrote that a contract regarding double sewer and water rates in exchange for a property tax waiver on Langrell's business did exist.
". . . It is my opinion and I am so advising the City that there is a contract, which comes into existence in various ways and is evidenced by the minutes of the City Council of this City, the annexation agreement itself, together with the waiver of taxes over these years and the payment of double water and sewer rates. It is clear to me there is a contract and one, which is enforceable. . ." Van Thiel wrote.
Langrell said the city made an error when it continued to charge him after his business was brought into city limits.
"The city has a problem with correcting its mistakes," he said.