Albany City Councilor Rich Kellum boiled down Wednesday’s council meeting on cost-cutting measures and revenue-generating suggestions for the city, issuing two choices to a packed room.
“We can either raise people’s taxes," he said, "or we can cut the services. That’s it.”
"Who is willing to raise their taxes?” he asked, prompting every hand in the room to shoot up.
It was just one of the exchanges during a hour-long public comment portion of the meeting, which was dominated by issues surrounding the city’s budget.
The city adopted a balanced budget in June that included cuts to several departments, including the police and fire departments. At the time, the council warned that costs were outpacing revenues and in July, members saw a list of about a dozen suggestions to cut costs and generate revenue. That list included instituting a $200 per-bed fee for assisted living facilities, closing the Albany Community Pool and repurposing the Carnegie Library to try and close future budget gaps.
On Wednesday, Finance Director Jeanna Yeager had more bad news for the next budget cycle.
Noting that her estimate was conservative, and very much an estimate, she informed the council that the city could be facing a deficit of $11 million in the two-year budget cycle beginning on July 1, 2021.
City Manager Peter Troedsson said the city was working to to get ahead of that budget and had councilors rank the cost-cutting and revenue-generating suggestions.
The No. 1 suggestion to bring additional funds into the city was to raise the FireMed fee from $65 annually to $70. The program, which covers the cost of a medically necessary ambulance ride, would be easy to adjust, Troedsson said.
The city’s second choice — increasing planning fees — is already in process. The third option, increasing the public safety levy, which ranked third, is another possibility, Troedsson said. The current rate is $1.15 per $1,000 of assessed home value and is due to be renewed next spring. However, Troedsson warned that while a 10-cent increase in the levy could generate $350,000 annually, the council would have to work to win over voters prior to next May's election.
Implementing an assisted living facility bed fee ranked fourth for councilors, but after a meeting with the Oregon Health Care Alliance, Troedsson said implementing a lift-assist fee instead would better address the issue of facilities using the local Fire Department to lift residents who have fallen.
Councilor Alex Johnson II made a case for a soda tax, noting that it would affect the most number of people evenly.
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“If you have the homeless person buying a soda paying 50 cents, you have the wealthy person buying mochas for their family paying the same,” he said.
Prior to the council discussion, members of the public spoke out on cost-cutting suggestions, urging the council to consider the public’s needs when making decisions concerning the budget.
Albany Public Library Foundation member John Burn reminded the council that the foundation was formed more than 20 years ago and tasked with raising $700,000 to save the Carnegie Library.
“I think abandoning the library at this point is a breach of faith,” he said.
Troedsson said that if the library were repurposed for something other than a governmental purpose, he wasn’t sure what the city’s tax liability would be, and that the city would have to take on the responsibility the library foundation is currently tasked with.
Supporters of the pool also spoke Wednesday, citing the pool’s water-safety program for kids and health benefits for all residents.
Monica Weber told the council that she has struggled with a back injury since 1993 and used the pool for pain relief.
“I would hobble to the edge with crutches and hop in,” she said. “Continued access to the pool is crucial to my health.”
Troedsson said any direction other than raising the FireMed fee would take time to implement.
On Monday during a work session, staff was directed to explore what implementing a utility rate would look like.
During Wednesday’s meeting, council directed staff to bring back more information on a timeline for implanting each of the suggestions they ranked, the pros and cons of each and if the Carnegie Library and Albany Community Pool cover their costs with fees they assess.