While the Newberg City Council did not make a final decision, councilors gave a strong indication they plan to let voters decide on whether Newberg will permanently join the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue District.
Through a motion proposed by Mayor Bob Andrews, the council approved an action directing staff to continue with the annexation process and return next month with two key items to vote on, one of which would hold a binding election in November.
The second key piece directs staff to bring an ordinance to the council that would put it into city code that the city will not collect $1.88 per $1,000 of assessed property value of the total permanent tax rate of $4.38
In proposing the measure, Andrews explained that the proposed ordinance would give residents the opportunity to call for an election if a future council didn't abide by the new requirement, and he asked that those lobbying for a charter amendment on the ballot hold off until then.
"I sincerely understand what is being said by those who are asking for the charter amendment, but I would ask them if they would defer their action pending how honorable future councils will be in honoring the Newberg city code," he said. "And if the councils do not honor it, then exercise at that time your right of initiative and referral."
The council approved Andrews' proposal by a 6-0 vote. TVF&R Chief Mike Duyck confirmed that he believes the action gives TVF&R the assurance it contractually needed by the end of the month.
Patrick Johnson cast his vote with his "nose plugged," citing concern that the ordinance would require voters to ceaselessly monitor the council to ensure they were abiding by the ordinance.
"Judging by how many people we normally have at our City Council meetings, I think (it) puts an unfair onus on the taxpayers and doesn't give checks and balances," he said. "Personally I'm not crazy about the ordinance idea, simply because of that."
After voting to approve the measure, Johnson immediately proposed to also put a charter amendment on the ballot that would bar the council from collecting the $1.88 without a public vote – a stricter approach than the ordinance and one that some residents have petitioned be on the ballot.
The council voted down this idea in a 3-2 vote, however, with Johnson and Denise Bacon voting yes and Andrews, Stephen McKinney and Mike Corey voting against. Scott Essin abstained from voting, noting his belief that there will not be enough time to put the measure on the ballot by November.
Former City Councilor Robert Soppe and budget committee member Lon Wall had already launched their own effort to put such a charter amendment on the ballot after the annexation takes place. They had petitioned the council to take the initiative and put such a measure on the ballot, but assured that residents would do it themselves if the council declined to do so.
After the meeting, Soppe said he is "not in the least" satisfied with the idea of an ordinance because the council would still have the ability to rescind such an ordinance, which was the problem with leaving it to a council resolution.
"I thought it was disrespectful to the citizens to have a resolution, or in this case an ordinance," he said. "I think there's no point in having such an ordinance."
The move toward holding an election came amid growing public outcry and what some have perceived of as a lack of transparency and public input regarding the decision.
Initially, officials took it for granted that the decision to join TVF&R would go to an election, but that changed in March when city and fire staff reported their belief that the decision legally had to be made by the council.
Meanwhile, many residents grew increasingly alarmed when they received a salvo of mailers from the Taxpayer Association of Oregon warning that the annexation could drive city taxes nearly 50 percent.
Officials have clarified that this is theoretically true. The city's permanent tax rate would remain at $4.38 per $1,000 of assessed property value, even as it no longer uses the equivalent of $1.88 of that rate to cover fire and ambulance services. Meanwhile, TVF&R would impose its own tax at a rate of $2.08.
If the city does not collect the $1.88 in the future, residents would see their effective overall tax rate rise by 20 cents per $1,000 assessed value in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
TVF&R and city staff worked together over preceding days to come up with numbers of how much it would likely cost the city to reconstitute the Newberg Fire Department.
With Newberg facing a rising demand for service and no money to hire additional staff and buy new equipment to meet that demand, officials estimate the city would need to boost fire service funding to a tax rate equivalent of $2.51 per $1,000 assessed value in 2018-2019 to bring staffing to a more sustainable level. However, they estimate the cost to offer services akin to TVF&R would cost $3.76.
Officials have said that it is the council's decision whether to not collect that $1.88 of the permanent tax rate, though that didn't stop numerous residents from barraging City Manager Joe Hannan with questions and complaints at a town hall meeting Thursday night.
Many still simmering about notices of the first town hall meeting arriving a day late, more than 100 residents descended on the downtown fire station Thursday night.
While many had nothing but praise for TVF&R and their service so far, they expressed concern about letting the council decide year after year if the city will collect the $1.88 of the tax rate that previously funded fire services.
Andrews repeatedly asserted that the city must first decide on whether to join TVF&R and then decide taxes later as a separate issue, but many residents at the meeting felt the opposite.
"Right now, if (the council) can't lock down the $1.88 out of their levy on a permanent basis – as much as I like TVF&R (and) I think the 20 cents per $1,000 is a good deal – I'll vote it down," said resident Mark Wheeler after the meeting.
Tim Reeves, an engineer and resident of Newberg, also praised TVF&R and generally expressed his support for annexation, but noted his concern that he is still unsure about how much taxes will actually rise and why the city would need to keep the $1.88.
"I just want to know that they're not going to say 'oh well, we're going to keep the $1.88 and use it to fix pot holes, which everybody says is necessary," he said. "Fine, but that needs to be a separate issue."
While he was mild-mannered in his critiques, Athlynn Reeves, a public schools employee, did not mince words on her distrust of city officials and her lack of confidence they will hold a vote and use taxes in accordance with her values.
"This (meeting) did help me, but I can see that the battle is not over yet," she said, referring to the passion of people gathered at the meeting. "I think if we don't vote on it, there's going to be a lot of unhappy Newberg people, because look at this room… I thought I was a gregarious, outgoing kind of rabble rouser, but there were other people in this room that were putting me to shame."
With the next regularly scheduled meeting on July 3 cancelled for the holiday, city staff members are expected to bring the various TVF&R items back to the council July 17.