No walk in the park: Silverton faces difficult funding decisions

May 2013 Posted in News
Gerald Fisher reveals some of the corroded pipes from Silverton waterlines. Photo by Brenna Wiegand

Silverton Public Works Director Gerald Fisher reveals some of the corroded pipes from Silverton waterlines. Photo by Brenna Wiegand

By Brenna Wiegand

Unfinished parks, antiquated waterlines and financial prudence were popular topics at the April 22 town hall exchange in regard to Silverton’s proposed financial plan for the next five years.

Some 30 residents attended, voicing concerns about a proposed increase in water-sewer rates along with new, across-the-board fees levied for parks, streetlights, streets/transportation and storm water.

With Silverton’s 2014 fiscal year beginning July 1, City Manager Bob Willoughby said Silverton is just months away from crossing the line in regard to the parks and recreation program.

“We may not replace an 80-year-old water line or we may not replace the swing set in Coolidge-McClaine Park; we may just take the old one down if it becomes unsafe.

“In other words, either we do this deferred maintenance; do the capital projects, or cut the level of service,” Willoughby said. “The fees would give us money to do projects. Streets, for example. Either our streets will continue to deteriorate or we will have a new fee that allows us to start doing the maintenance we should have been doing for years.”

The process began months ago with identifying millions of dollars needed to expand, replace and/or repair infrastructure, from pipes, pumps and tanks to picnic shelters, play structures and parking lots.

For the 2014 fiscal year, armed with consultant recommendations and community preferences, the budget committee is recommending a water/sewer rate increase of about $20 for the average residential customer, from $76.34 to $94.81 per month. The consultant’s recommendation would take that number to $105.94.

Additionally, utility bills would include fees broken out as Parks (consultant recommendation $2.75; budget committee, $2.50); Streetlights (consultant: $3.29/month; committee recommends no fee at this time); Streets/Transportation (concultant: $14.52; committee: $10.85); and Storm water, for which the budget committee is considering a fee of $1-5; the consultant recommends $4.92/month.

While residential customers would pay a set storm water fee based on the average home’s impervious surfaces, commercial-industrial property owners would pay a proportionate share higher.

“Starting with a small fee gives us the opportunity to do the projects that need to be done soonest,” Silverton Mayor Stu Rasmussen said. “Then, rather than just ask for $10 a month the community will then be able to see what we’ve done with their money – we’ve fixed these potholes; built these streets … We’re trying to be good stewards of the funds.”

Steve Donovan of Steve Donovan & Associates is principal author of the current sewer and water rate study as well as those in 2007 and 2002.

“You folks out there – think of yourselves as stockholders in these big corporations of water and sewer, parks and storm water,” Donovan said. “All of the equity that you have in that system gets reinvested in a system. Your rates go into building things. If there’s a surplus, it carries over and becomes your rate-payer equity.”

City seeks citizen input
Checkout the city’s recently revamped website, for plans, policies,
budgets, audits.

Attend City Council and other public meetings
Call city staff, 503-873-5321, or committee members
E-mail to the city manager:
Walk into City Hall, 306 S Water St.
Watch meetings on SCAN-TV

A 5-year budget is slated for adoption by
City Council June 17. Public testimony will
be heard at the May 6, 7 p.m. council meeting
and at any remaining budget committee meetings,
Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning May 7.

“Maybe it’s time for the city to stop playing Santa Claus and just say no,” said Kay Strobe during public testimony. “I think it’s really wonderful to have all the parks and it would be delightful to have more new parks. On the other hand, I’d rather have fresh water and sewer…”

The last community survey identified parks, police and sidewalks as high priority items, but how to make the split can be tricky.

“Are you going to take care of the existing parks first and then do the new construction, or are you going to let them continue to rot while you build the new ones?” Strobel asked.

Parks, police and sidewalks were among the top priorities of Silvertonians per a citywide survey as the master plan was being developed. Some yet-to-be-built parks are eligible for grants if matching funds can be raised as cash, labor or donated materials. But they also need to be maintained.

Public Works Director Gerald Fisher said he needs a part-time employee to help his one full-time worker and part-time summer employee with a mountain of work.

“Right now we’re barely able to keep up maintenance of the existing five parks,” Fisher said. “There are four undeveloped parks – skate park dog park, Pioneer Park, and ‘40 Acre.’ We are building the skate and dog parks this summer.”

Such endeavors, however, are put on hold when something in the system blows.

“The work they do is considered heavy construction,” Fisher said. “An 8-inch line will push a building off its foundation. Not only are they usually working in the middle of the night, wet; raining; but they have to make sure they’ve got things set so that when they get in there it’s not going to come out of the ground and kill them… A lot of people don’t understand what we do. We’re trying desperately and my guys are happy to step up but you can only sprint for so long before your staff starts getting burned out.”

Ken Hector, city councilor and budget committee member, said the committee has labored long attempting to strike a balance between available funds, community preferences per the last citywide survey and ongoing public testimony; what people can afford and what the city must have to make badly needed infrastructure improvements.

“It’s very difficult,” Hector said. “The consultant’s proposed sewer and water fee is $30 a month – that’s $360 a year, and if you’re on fixed income that’s a lot of money … I am hopeful that as we continue this process more people will show up; it would be nice to have a better feel as to where the public stands as a whole.”

Council and budget committee member Scott Walker is in favor of scrapping the fees in favor of a bond measure and perhaps selling the Pettit Natural Area with its lake. The property, he explained, ties up sewer funds, as does the $600,000 owed the city for the land Oregon Garden Resort occupies.

“The thing about fees is they never go away,” Walker said. “They’re not tax deductible and they punish the poor rather than the rich.”

“We just seem to be misdirecting some of our expenditures,” resident Tootie Riggs said. “Maybe we could start on a lake that we seem to own.”

At the post-meeting reception Fisher displayed an array of blown-out and corroded pipe sections from waterlines tracing Silverton’s underground. He showed a “tuberculated” 4-inch steel pipe resembling a clogged artery; a smaller piece of steel line that recently blew out, rusted to the crumbling point. A good deal of the city’s waterlines date back to shortly after WWII or even the 1930s, but worrisome too are an unknown quantity of lead junctions installed in the 1970s.

Fisher ran a pocketknife along one such piece. Among the rusty soot he pointed out a few shiny flakes.

“That’s lead,” Fisher said. “You have these kinds of pipes all over the place.”

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