NORTH BEND — North Bend’s Tuesday night city council meeting saw council members reject a resolution to increase public safety fees which were necessary to balance the city budget.
Council felt that it could not in good conscience approve the fee increase without bringing it to the people of North Bend for a vote in the coming November election.
Increasing the current $5 per month public safety fee is the city of North Bend’s attempt to bridge the $1.3 million gap between its property tax revenue and its cost to provide public safety.
“In this particular case, it’s a scenario where by police and fire costs us $1.3 million more than we get in property taxes total,” North Bend City Administrator Terence O’Connor said. "The only way the city can make up for that difference is through fees. That’s what we’ve attempted to do. Apparently our elected people have suggested that they would like some further light and guidance from the community on that.”
At Monday’s work session, the mayor and city council discussed the fees at length. Mayor Rick Wetherell and the rest of council agreed that they would prefer to let the people vote on whether or not to approve new fees.
A discussion was held on how much the fees might be varied. The city originally suggested a $12.31 raise in public safety fees. However, later the city asked the council to vote in a $20 fee increase, with the intention being that the city would not have to continually raise the fee. Council presented an option Monday where fees would be raised by $10 a month and the remaining $2 would be taken out of storm water fees that the city also collects. Ultimately, council decided that input from the people was the route they would like to take.
“It’s up to the people of North Bend to decide what type of city they want to have. We have painted a picture and it’s not a beautiful picture, but again my view is as it has been for over a year now, that we go to the public and see what they want to do.” Wetherell said.
The city now has two weeks to adjust and balance the budget before the July 1 deadline which the city is legally obligated to meet.
According to O’Connor, the public safety departments will be able to maintain operations without cutting services through December.
Police and fire account for just over half of the city’s budget. If the city is unable to find a new avenue to bridge the $1.3 million deficit, programs in those departments will be cut.
For the North Bend Police Department, this means four newly trained officers will be laid off. North Bend Police Chief Robert Kappleman has been working for over a year now to increase the number of officers in North Bend. He’s presented a number of times in front of council and the community to state his case as to why he believes the city needs these new officers.
“The most crucial aspect of that presentation was that first of all we had significant delay in our investigators ability to initiate investigation on serious crimes. For example, if a child was abused or sexually assaulted, it was taking an average of 28 days before we could get on top of the workload to start that investigation. The additional four officers allowed us to move one additional officer into investigations, and that has resulted in our ability to begin serious crime investigations in less than 24 hours,” Kappelman said.
Kappelman’s second major point is that more than two thirds of the calls the department receives annually require more than one officer to respond. A year ago many of those calls were being responded to by only one officer.
“The calls for service were too vast, we had to divide and conquer in order to answer the calls of service. That simply isn’t safe. I’m not going to send my officers into a potentially deadly situation alone. What the additional officers have already done is drastically reduce, to almost zero, the number of two man calls where only one officer can respond,” Kappelman said.
As for how the potential cuts might affect the North Bend Fire Department, Chief Mark Meaker said that it would likely hinder the department’s ability to respond to emergency medical calls. Meaker and a couple of his colleagues told council that their average response time on medical calls is around three minutes, whereas they claim that local ambulance services average around 12 minutes to respond.
“This is something that the voters have the ability to do, but if they don’t, they need to realize that they’re sending EMS services back 50 years,” Meaker said.
Before council’s decision, two citizens came before council members to express their concerns about raising public safety fees.
“I appeared last time and I was all for it. What bothers me this time is just a few months ago I thought $5 was it. Why didn’t we address it all at once? I’ve heard all kinds of comments on the street about what’s going to happen three or four months down the road,” North Bend resident Lewis Ball said.
It’s uncertain at this time what the city will do to balance its budget. Even more uncertain is what November’s public safety fee ballot measure will ask of the people.