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Pendleton councilor proposes strong action to make city budget sustainable

Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on July 31, 2018 6:37PM

Last changed on August 1, 2018 8:04AM

Scott Fairley

Scott Fairley

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Frustrated by a lack of action on growing maintenance costs in the past two city budgets, Pendleton City Councilor Scott Fairley is proposing his own plan.

Presented at a city council workshop Monday, Fairley’s plan includes a timeline that would put Pendleton on a path toward addressing its $30 million maintenance backlog and balancing the gap between revenue and expenses by 2020.

At the heart of the problem, according to Fairley’s report, is that property tax increases are capped at 3 percent while the cost of operating the city rises by 4 to 6 percent each year.

“Rather than cut services to address this gap, the city has been funding services the community desires, such as public safety and parks and recreation, by deferring maintenance on publicly owned city assets including roads, buildings, and parks,” he wrote. “This means that as a community, we are not paying the full cost for the services we use — we are enjoying public assets paid for by previous generations but passing the cost of maintaining and replacing those assets on to future generations.”

In an interview after the meeting, Fairley said the plan revolves around the services paid for with the general fund — police, fire, parks and recreation, and others. The second part of the plan includes streets, which had been paid for in the past with state gas tax dollars.

Fairley said he understands the difficulty of these conversations, but if the city continues to “kick the can down the road,” Pendleton could eventually face having to close parks, facilities or roads.

In order to put the city on the path to sustainability, Fairley said the city would either have to cut services, raise revenue or find a combination of both.

To figure out exactly what the public would be willing to part with or spend additional money for, Fairley wants to involve residents in the process and create a communications plan on how best to reach them.

While budget cuts could be a part of the solution, Fairley believes the city can’t cut its way into prosperity.

“The assumption is, generally, people don’t want to pay any more (for services),” he said. “I don’t think that’s accurate.”

City Manager Robb Corbett said he and staff continue to support council efforts to make the budget more sustainable, but this wouldn’t be the first attempt at doing it.

Corbett referenced an infrastructure committee the council convened that led to recommendations for a 5-cent gas tax, a $5 street utility fee, and offloading or leasing surplus city property.

While the gas tax was voted down in an election, the city implemented the utility fee and recently sold the old police station on Southwest Court Avenue.

Corbett argued that the city is more sustainable than it was three to five years ago, but he is also on board with the latest effort.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Councilor Dale Primmer said he has discussed the issue with Fairley since they were both elected to council in 2016, adding that Fairley’s presentation Monday was a good start to the conversation.

Primmer liked that Fairley had a timeline in his plan, and he prefers the city take a closer look at identifying efficiencies in the budget before looking at harder cuts or raising revenue.

If the council decides to seek a new tax from Pendleton voters, Fairley targeted November 2019 for the election. Fairley said he might need to refine the timeline further, but he thinks the city can be put on the path to sustainability within the next few years.

With two new councilors set to take office in January, Fairley said he asked Corbett to forward his plan to the councilors-elect.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.



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