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Council wary of new utility fees

Raising utility fees to pay for increasing maintenance costs was a hard sell for Medford City Council Thursday when it debated the hardship it would place on low-income households.

“They don’t have the money so they have to cut something out,” Councilor Dick Gordon said. “A lot of people are really struggling.”

The council looked at a proposal over the next few years where fees for storm drains, sewer lines, street maintenance and for the sewage treatment plant are all going up.

Street and sewer line maintenance fees in particular gave the council the most concern. Street fees are currently $7.35 a month but would go up to $8.01 this July, to $8.73 in 2019 and finally to $9.52 in 2020. Sewer fees would go from $13.18 now to $14.63 in 2018, to $16.24 in 2019 and then to $17.86 in 2020.

Street maintenance has been hit hard in recent years because of a federal requirement that new disability ramps be installed whenever new asphalt is laid on a street. Previously the city was spending about $2 million annually for street maintenance but that has been cut to less than $1 million because of the federal requirement to install the new ramps. In some cases, existing ramps have also been replaced because they don’t meet new requirements.

Gordon said that instead of increasing fees, the city should look at other ways to devote revenues to utility maintenance.

“We have had a lot of public money for Public Works and they haven’t got the work done,” Gordon said.

One idea the council agree do look at is a list of multi-million projects the city plans to undertake to widen and improve roadways, such as projects to improve Columbus Avenue or Lozier Lane.

Another idea, which would require voter approval, is to add 3 cents to the local gas tax, which would raise about $1 million a year.

Cory Crebbin, Public Works director, said the city is already having a hard time keeping up with maintenance issues.

He cited the failure of the storm drains and sewer lines on Sixth Street as an example of utility’s that haven’t been maintained properly, causing closure of the street for repairs.

“If we could get to these pipes in time, we wouldn’t have to dig them up,” Crebbin said.

Crebbin said if the city doesn’t spend $1 now for maintenance, it will need to spend up to $10 later to make the repairs.

While many streets are repaved or maintained throughout the city over the past 10 years, others are not.

“We have some streets that we don’t maintain because they’re in such poor condition,” Crebbin said.

Other cities have drastically increased fees to replace aging infrastructure throughout Oregon, but Medford has previously had a policy to increase fees gradually to keep up with maintenance.

Mayor Gary Wheeler said the city is growing and needs to be able to properly maintain existing streets and sewers.

“If we’re a growing city, we can’t fall behind,” he said. “We’ve got to figure a way to manage things so we don’t fall behind.”

Councilor Mike Zarosinski said he didn’t see enough information from city officials to make it clear how the increases would provide enough for the maintenance issues.

“I need to be able to say this is why we’re going to change the fees,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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