Finances top agenda: Mount Angel looks to secure its future

January 2016 Posted in Other
Mount Angel City Manager Eileen Stein

Mount Angel City Manager Eileen Stein

By Steve Ritchie

Chickens, marijuana and false alarms at businesses are some of the issues the Mount Angel City Council wrestled with in 2015.

A scorecard of council actions reveals chickens are in – as long as you have no more than six hens and zero roosters, marijuana is legal – but you won’t be able to grow or sell it commercially, at least until city residents vote it in November 2016, and an excessive number of false alarms at a business might earn the owner a “surcharge.”

City Manager Eileen Stein sees 2016 as a crucial year for the city’s future. With revenue stagnant, infrastructure needs growing and city hall crumbling, Stein believes it is time to create a long term financial plan for the city.

Fiscal planning crucial

“Where we’re headed this next year is a conversation I’m calling it ‘Beyond 2015-16,’” Stein said. “This year we balanced the budget but had to dip into our fund balance (general operating reserves) a little bit. It’s akin to borrowing from savings to fund current obligations and you can’t do that for very long. We don’t have the revenues to support city operations on a sustainable basis.”

Stein says a lot of “visioning work” has been done. The city’s Vision Statement for the year 2025 touts economic growth, events that bring visitors to town, infrastructure improvements, a thriving downtown and an adequate tax base.

“We have lots of ideas for what could be done here, so the question is how are we going to put these plans into action,” Stein aasked

Council President Kelly Grassman agreed with Stein about the need for focused planning to ensure a sustainable financial future for the city.

Mount Angel City Council
The Mount Angel City Council meets
the first Monday of themonth.
The next meeting is Jan. 4, 7 p.m.,
at the Mount Angel Library,
290 E Charles St. Meetings are
open to the public. Agendas are
available in advance. The council
members are Mayor Andrew Otte,
Councilors Kelly Grassman, Darren Beyer,
Don Fleck, Karl Bischoff, Ray Eder
and Pete Wall.

“We’ve known for several years that the time was coming when we were going to have to be more proactive,” Grassman said. “We could keep going the status quo for awhile but knew we were going to have to start looking hard 5, 10, 20 years down the road and how we were going to sustain the budget.”

Grassman noted the city council has been operating with a conservative fiscal mindset during her seven-plus years on the council, and she is proud of the fact the city has financial reserves and no debt.

Stein has developed long-range projections on city funds. Three of those are utility-related – street, water, and sewer – but the key is the general fund, which includes police, city administration and facilities, parks, library services, planning and community development. Without good planning, Stein is concerned the city could exhaust its reserves and be hard-pressed to maintain existing and popular services like 24-hour local policing, the library and city parks.

Aging city facilities in need of repair

Another challenging issue is the city hall building, which Stein calls, “crumbling and functionally obsolete.” A tour around the vintage structure reveals a partially caved-in ceiling in the front office and in another part of the building, a large blower running in attempt to dry out more water damage.

Mayor Andy Otte agreed with Stein’s description of city hall, saying, “It seems to be getting worse by the day. Engineers are going to come out and look at it and give us some options.”

Part of Mount Angel’s troubling fiscal picture is its concentration of non-profit organizations, which do not pay property tax, as well as a long-standing suspicion of growth.

Growth may be one answer 

Stein believes attracting more businesses and expanding single family housing would help the revenue picture in the long run. “If you are not growing, you are dying,” she said.

Otte and Grassman both say local residents are not necessarily opposed to growth, but they are cautious about it. The recent public vote on annexing 20-acres into the city and rezoning it as single family housing supports this view. The vote, which was advisory and required by the city charter. Voters narrowly favored the annexation, 52 to 48 percent.

“Honestly, I was surprised it passed in an off election year,” Otte said. “But growth is not a bad thing when you know what you’re getting. If you can manage it you’re fine.” The city council will decide on the proposed annexation at its Jan. 4 meeting.

Bullish on Mount Angel

Despite her concerns about the long term financial picture, Stein is bullish on Mount Angel.

“We’ve done a lot of good work in the last two and a half years,” Stein said. “We’re laying that foundation. If we can get this (financial) piece into place a lot of the rest will fall into place. Things will begin to fall into place more easily.”

One of the projects Stein is most excited about is the Facade Improvement Program for local businesses. In 2014 the city applied for a grant of $5,000 from Marion County to distribute to businesses wanting to spruce up their exteriors. The program went so well that in 2015 the city applied for and received an $18,000 grant to assist businesses. To be considered for a grant, businesses need to apply by the end of January.

With the help of a masters of public administration student from Portland State University, a comparative study of infrastructure fee rates was completed in 2015.

“(The study) helped the city council focus on the need to attend to long-term maintenance and operation of our infrastructure systems like water and sewer,” Stein said. The study helped prompt the council to adopt an increase in the city’s system development charge, and establish an Infrastructure Committee to create a plan for maintaining and improving the water, sewer and road systems.

Revisiting the issue of creating an Urban Renewal District (URD) is another item on the council’s agenda for 2016. The last time Urban Renewal was considered it became a contentious issue. Stein and Otte say it is worthwhile to review it again, but are not certain the URD is a good fit for Mount Angel.

“I don’t know if it will get beyond having a conversation, but we’ll revisit it and take another look,” Otte said.

The key for a healthy city is simple, Stein said, but not easy to achieve.

“It all goes back to having a healthy (local) economy. We need to create economic stability and economic vitality in Mount Angel to have the best chance of working (to address) whatever else is going on,” Stein said.

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