Council makes city sidewalk fee official

By Mike Ferguson, Baker City Herald August 27, 2008 03:39 pm

By a 4-2 vote, the Baker City Council gave final approval Tuesday night to a sidewalk utility fee designed to, over the next five years, pay to repair or build sections of as many as 300 sidewalks.

The fee — $1 per month for residents, $2 for businesses — is expected to raise up to $60,000 annually, with no less than 25 percent going toward grants of up to $1,000 to help residents repair or construct sidewalks.

Mayor Jeff Petry and councilor Andrew Bryan voted no, while councilors Dennis Dorrah, Beverly Calder, Sam Bass and Terry Schumacher voted yes. Councilor Gail Duman was absent.

The city will begin assessing the sidewalk fee about Oct. 1.

The ordinance is not without its detractors.

“The fee you are working on is a giant slush fund that will benefit too few folks,” said Jon Croghan. “You need to work on a long-term plan to fix the sidewalks. My unscientific survey found that people I talked to didn’t think it was a very good idea, especially a person who just put in a sidewalk. They felt that since they paid, everyone else should pay, too.”

Calder termed the program “a small way to begin fixing the problem” and said that with up to 300 repaired or constructed sidewalks under its belt five years from now, the City Council “would be in a strong position to look at a bond measure.”

Councilor Sam Bass also spoke in support of the new fee.

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“We wanted to get something done. We haven’t done anything about our sidewalks in a long time,” he said. “Everybody uses sidewalks. I don’t have sidewalks, but I walk on them.”

Bass said the fees are appropriate.

“We don’t want to overburden people the way the economy is now,” he said.

The City Council also granted final approval on an ordinance proposing the renewal of an economic improvement district in the downtown area.

Under the proposed five-year extension of the current EID, property owners will pay $1.75 per $1,000 assessed value within the boundaries of the Historic District and $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value for properties inside the EID but outside the Historic District.

During the Aug. 12 meeting councilors discussed lifting the $800 per landowner cap on assessments, but decided to wait on deciding the issue until a final EID ordinance is proposed late in 2008.

In a related development, councilors voted to table considering a resolution allowing historic property owners to qualify for a second 15-year term of special tax assessment.

The measure would allow more time for property tax assessments to be frozen on historically significant buildings. Baker City is home to 110 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Petry said before voting on such an extension, he wanted to know what it costs local governments, which properties benefit from the tax savings and “why this is fair for someone to get 30 years of property tax relief” even before they remodel their property, Petry said.

“I mean, that’s a long time,” Petry said.

Baker City businessman Jim McElroy was granted a special parking permit for making deliveries in time-limited parking areas downtown. He agreed with a council stipulation that his two delivery vehicles share one Class A permit placard.

Councilors also heard from City Attorney Dan Van Thiel regarding his July phone conversations with City Manager Steve Brocato.

Brocato, in a July e-mail to councilors, wrote that he had conferred with Van Thiel about an ordinance which Brocato and other city officials contend Calder violated by painting colored dots on the sidewalk in front of her Main Street store, Bella.

Duman, however, pointed out that Van Thiel denied giving a legal opinion about the city’s allegation.

In an e-mail, Duman wrote that “someone is not being truthful.”

While acknowledging that he billed the city for one-eighth of an hour for the July 18 phone conversation, Van Thiel told councilors Tuesday, “I can’t tell you the substance of that discussion. Somebody said, ‘Did you have a conversation with Mr. Brocato related to the ordinance,’ and I sure don’t recall one about dots on a sidewalk. He may have asked me if it’s an enforceable ordinance. If anybody asks me whether an ordinance is enforceable, I will in every instance say yes, follow the law.”

When asked by Brocato to address the issue of being accused of lying, Van Thiel said he “thinks it’s unfortunate anybody suggests anybody is lying. People remember things differently, but nobody is lying. I assure you I haven’t lied. Why would I deceive anybody? I couldn’t care less.”

Brocato said he was “greatly offended” by a story in the Aug. 21 Baker City Herald that outlined the controversy.

 “The content was very dismaying,” he said. “I think this council should police itself. If councilors have issues, they need to address them to staff, not e-mail them to the newspaper.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that Councilor Duman is not here at this time to understand that when she makes accusations about City Hall integrity for whatever reason there are ramifications beyond this Council chamber,” Brocato said.

Brocato ticked off examples of his decisions —‑including changing city insurance providers and terminating employees —‑where “the City was vindicated after the noise went away.”

He said the dot controversy damages the City’s economic development efforts and said he plans to write an editorial submission on the topic to both the Baker City Herald and the Record-Courier.

“I think citizens should be fed proper information so that people can decide who gets to manage city government,” Brocato said.

Duman was not available for comment in time for this story.

Calder reminded councilors that Duman “was elected by the community to represent the community” and that Brocato had, in an e-mail, accused Duman of “pre-election politics.”

Calder said that the city manager is not allowed to support any candidate for City Council, “and that includes damaging the reputation of a candidate. The city manager works for the Council, and the Council works for the people. City Councilors  should be able to speak their minds without fear of reprimand.”

Some councilors were clearly tired of the controversy.

“All of us have been off track for a month on this issue while serious business continues at a good pace,” said Bryan. “I suggest we all move on.”

“I am appalled at the way things have happened, to the point of asking for censure for a councilor who I feel is out of line,” said Schumacher.

Petry said he did as Duman asked, requesting that Van Thiel appear before the City Council to help resolve the issue.

“We have an honorable city manager who tells the truth and staff that tells the truth,” Petry said. “I believe (Brocato) implicitly. I’m glad we’re moving on.”