By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

On Monday, May 8, at 6 p.m., the Keizer City Council will hold a public forum on enacting a fee to create a dedicated fund for city parks.

The forum will not be the culmination of a more than year-long effort, but it will be one of the more prominent opportunities for those who support the idea, and those who oppose it, to have their voices heard. The council will take public testimony, but it’s not likely to be the final opportunity for residents to testify.

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

“The discussion will be based on the data we have received and the realities of the budget without those funds,” said Mayor Cathy Clark.

Parks services are paid for out of the city’s general fund and changing the amounts allocated to each isn’t as easy as it might seem. The city operates on a tight budget and annual additional contributions to the state’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) have made it difficult to expand what’s available. In the most recent fiscal year, parks were given $336,000 in the budget, which amounts to $1,400 per acre for everything from regular mowing to repairs and improvements.

City staff, the Keizer Parks Advisory Board and members of the city council have been working for months to not only craft potential fee structures, but solicit input from residents on their support for the idea. During the first quarter of 2017, residents at each Keizer household were sent a survey asking for input. It was also available online.

Given the extensive work put into this project, Keizertimes is presenting the history as a series of questions and answers.

Why a parks fee needed?

Keizer has 240 acres of parks and two full-time employees to take care of them. There are also three or four seasonal workers hired each year for the busy season from March to October. One of the full-time employees spends half of his time dealing with maintenance issues at the Keizer Civic Center.

In the past year alone, issues at Keizer parks have caused no small amount of consternation for parks employees and the members of the parks advisory board.

“Too many people think you can buy something for a park and not touch it for 20 years,” said Robert Johnson, Keizer’s parks supervisor. “Parks are no different than a car, you have to get tires rotated, you have to change the oil, you have to do the things that keep it running and usable.”

When a play structure at Wallace House Park was vandalized, the city struggled to find $3,500 to repair it. Sections of the structure had to be blocked off for about a week. A planned repair to the parking lot on the south end of Claggett Creek Park cost nearly twice as much as originally estimated because the work was deferred for a year. At Carlson Skate Park, cracks are becoming so prominent that it is becoming a safety issue for park users. Prioritizing fixes at the skate park meant that the parks board will not offer a matching grant program for parks improvements during the next fiscal year.

Without additional funding, Keizer Public Works Director Bill Lawyer has said that even things like mowing and garbage removal will suffer and that some amenities will be closed or removed as they reach the end of their life cycle.

What options were considered before settling on fees?

Bonds and establishing a parks taxing district were considered. Both were rejected for different reasons. Bonds cannot pay for operational costs and those are the heart of the parks’ woes. A bond could pay for a new tennis court, but not the staff time needed to maintain it. The taxing district was rejected because of the additional overhead it would create that would add to the cost.

Why doesn’t the city just raise taxes?

It can’t. Bond measures passed in the mid-1990s locked in property tax rates (in Keizer’s case, $2.08 per thousand dollars of assessed value) and the amounts at which property values can increase on an annual basis (3 percent). Recently, additional payments to PERS have eaten up the lion’s share of the annual property value increases that Keizer receives.

Wouldn’t residents get to vote on whether the city can charge fees?

Not necessarily. The city council has the power to enact fees within its jurisdiction. The council could choose to seek an advisory vote, but the results would not be binding. An advisory vote would also add to the city’s expenses.

How would the fees be collected?

That remains to be determined. Adding the fee to utility bills the city already issues for water would save processing, postage and printing costs. However, the city council could also set it up as a separate bill.

Will my water be cut off if I don’t pay the fee?

City staff has assured the council that no one would have their water cut off for failure to pay a parks fee.

What fee amounts are being discussed?

Amounts discussed range from no fee to $8 per month.

What were the results of the survey sent to residents?

Residents returned 1,102 surveys, which amounts to about 8 percent of Keizer’s roughly 14,300 households. Most survey respondents (23.8 percent) said they supported a $4 fee, but the results were fairly close across the board. An $8 fee was supported by 21.9 percent of respondents; a $2 fee garnered 21.6 percent of the votes; 17.2 percent wanted no fee; and a $6 fee had the lowest level of support (15.9 percent).  Maintenance tasks in general took a higher priority than even the most popular new amenity requested by responders.

Did the Parks Advisory Board make a recommendation on the fee?

After much discussion, the board unanimously recommended a staggered rollout of a fee. If the city council were to accept the recommendation unaltered, the fee would start at $4 per month, increase to $6 the following year and top out at $8 per month ($96 per year) the year after that.

While the vote was unanimous, at least one parks board member, Scott Klug, had serious reservations about maxing out the fee at $8.

“It bothers me that we don’t have a consensus of (survey responders) wanting to pay $8,” Klug said. “More than half of the survey, almost four-fifths, came back saying they don’t want to pay $8.”

What would the fee allow the city to do for Keizer parks?

• $4 per month/$48 per year. At that level, the dedicated fund would be $686,000 per year. The additional funding would permit the maintenance, repair or replacement of most play structures, restrooms, picnic shelter, paths, sports courts and parking areas. Most safety issues could be mitigated, and older equipment could be replaced. Perhaps most importantly, a separate dedicated fund would be established for the sole purpose of unlocking system development charges (SDCs) collected when new residential construction projects are started.

• $6 per month/$72 per year would generate a dedicated fund just north of $1 million per year. All current amenities would be maintained, repaired or replaced; all safety-related issues would be addressed; the fee would maintain all current equipment and replace older equipment as needed; allow for removal of most invasive species and installation of many of the amenities already planned for Keizer parks.

  At $8 per month, $96 per year, the dedicated fund grows to $1.3 million per year. In addition to all of the work made possible with the smaller fees, the final option would: support completion of most projects in the parks master plan within the next 10 years; allow for additional land purchases and increased trail options; and be used to develop environmental, nature and wildlife programs.

What comes next?

The next steps will largely depend on what happens at the public forum on Monday, May 8. Check next week’s edition of the Keizertimes for a full recap and the plan moving forward.