City Fee Proposal Still Short on Details

With less than five weeks until Eugene voters decide whether to approve a city service fee, a committee is beginning to work on the fee’s low-income threshold, and its collection method is still up in the air.

The proposed fee would charge each household up to $10 per month and each business up to $30 per month per location to fill most of an estimated $5.9 million budget gap in the 2014 fiscal year beginning July 1. Proponents say the fee is needed to preserve popular human services, but opponents say other funds can be found or other expenditures cut. Measure 20-211 mandates a low-income limit to the fee, but it doesn’t list parameters or how eligibility would be established.

City Councilor Claire Syrett, who supports the fee, says the council added the lower limit because they didn’t want to burden low-income residents. She says the lower limit and actual cost of the fee would be affected by the method of collection, which is yet to be determined.

“Once we know where we’re going to set the exemption threshold, that will determine what the overall fee is for everyone else,” Syrett says. “I don’t know if it’ll be a full exemption or partial; I think that will also depend on how all those numbers work out.”

Syrett says the council has discussed collecting the fee through EWEB to save administrative costs, and the lower limit would likely have a threshold similar to that of food stamp eligibility. Like EWEB’s Customer Care Program, the fee exemption would likely require people to apply; EWEB’s program requires an application at one of three nonprofits. “Just practically speaking, it would be really impossible for us to know if you’re exempt if we don’t have some kind of form filled out from you,” she says.

EWEB spokesperson Joe Harwood says that EWEB’s commissioners will likely wait until after the vote on the measure to decide whether EWEB will collect the fee. He says that after the city makes a formal request to collect, the issue would probably be added to the board’s agenda. EWEB doesn’t collect income data on its customers.

The city has asked EWEB before to collect fees other than the stormwater and sewage fees mandated in EWEB’s charter. “Over the decades this comes up every five to 10 years or so,” Harwood says. “In the past, EWEB’s elected commissioners have declined to collect.”

Harwood says the penalty for non-payment of the fee is one of the biggest issues raised for EWEB. “One of the things that we’ve struggled with here is that we don’t believe that disconnecting someone’s utility is appropriate,” he says, “so there are some really thorny policy issues that would have to be resolved.”

Councilor Betty Taylor, who opposes the fee, says she thinks the lower limit is a problem. “I don’t think that could be done fairly. It’s too hard to find out who can’t afford that. I don’t think it’s even legal to find out who’s on food stamps,” she says. “It would cost a lot of money to collect it.”

Taylor says her primary objections to the city fee are that it’s regressive and it’s permanent. “It’s regressive because it’s the same for everyone regardless of whether you’re barely getting by or you’re wealthy,” she says.

Opponents of the fee say it is effectively permanent and will never be repealed by City Council, so it will likely take another vote to repeal the fee ordinance. Proponents say the fee is not permanent, and they point to the portion of the ordinance that reads: “Five years after the effective date of the fee, the City Council shall conduct a review of the city service fee to determine whether the fee should be revised or terminated.”

Bonny Bettman McCornack, spokesperson for fee opposition group CiTJAW, says the dearth of details is a problem. “If they wanted to exempt low-income households, they should have codified it in the ordinance,” she says, adding that people will have to know the program is there and apply, which is a barrier.

While the details about the lower limit are unknown and might still be on Election Day, the City Manager Jon Ruiz’s office says he has appointed a committee to help develop and guidelines for the low-income assistance program. Jason Dedrick from the city manager’s office will facilitate the group, which includes former city councilor Andrea Ortiz, Bethel School District Superintendent Colt Gill, former United Way of Lane County executive director Priscilla Gould, former city of Eugene CMO division manager Keli Osborn, Eugene Family YMCA Associate Executive Director Julie Grossman, LCOG Senior Services Information Services Manager Jody Cline and Catholic Community Services of Lane County Executive Director Tom Mulhern.