Difficult Choices

How do we fill a real and immediate need?

The proposed city fee is the subject of much debate in our community. Many community members remain undecided. Voters deserve some clarity about the proposed fee and a response to the critics who say it is not needed.

The Eugene Cares campaign, comprised of dedicated volunteers, believes this fee proposal is a modest, practical way to address a continuing structural deficit in our city’s General Fund (GF). The GF is the way we pay for most basic city services including police, fire, libraries, parks maintenance, recreation programs, neighborhood services and human services. This fund has experienced growing gaps between revenues and expenses over the past four years. Every budget cycle since the recession, the Eugene city manager has warned the council that this gap must be addressed. But in the wake of the recession, rather than asking voters for new revenues, the council found other means to close the gap and continue funding services without impacting residents. These included cutting positions (some were vacant, but others cut after retirements and staff departures), finding efficiencies like combining our fire department with Springfield’s, and cutting back on salaries and benefits, including implementing furloughs. Only last year did the city cut any direct services. These strategies are not sustainable. This year we need to make some difficult choices and are asking voters to help make them.

If passed the city service fee will raise $5.3 million which will be deposited in a separate fund and dedicated to funding police, fire, human services, parks, pools and libraries. A citizen oversight committee will monitor the expenditure of these funds. The fee will be reviewed in five years for elimination or revision. The fee itself will be no more than $10 a month per residence and $30 for business and will likely be much less.

Critics of this fee have raised a number of issues, some valid, others red herrings. One real issue is that the fee is a flat fee which hits everyone the same regardless of ability to pay. To mitigate this regressive effect, the council adopted a low-income relief requirement for the fee to help reduce the burden those who most need the vital services this fee is meant to preserve.

Critics go on to assert that the money raised will not be used to fund the services listed beyond Fiscal Year 2014. This has no basis in fact. It is simply an attempt to undermine voter confidence in the fee. The citizen oversight committee will ensure accountability for how the money is used just as the city has done with the road bond.

Critics maintain that there are other ways to close the gap, including using reserves, ending the Riverfront Urban Renewal District and selling city parks to housing developers. While some of these strategies might fill the gap in the short term they would undermine the city’s financial stability and do nothing to address the continuing structural deficit in our GF. We would use up our savings in a couple of years, still have the budget gap and place our city’s financial standing in jeopardy. Other cities that have used similar stop-gap measures are now facing bankruptcy.

Lastly, and perhaps most cynically, the critics claim that if the fee fails the council will still find ways to fund the services listed in the ordinance. This too is pure speculation. It is not clear that the council will find consensus on how to fill the gap this year or in subsequent years should voters reject the fee. Three councilors, including myself, have stated we would cut programs rather than continue to use one-time money for on-going services. Others say they will propose the strategies already mentioned here. But those strategies do not have majority support on the council so there is no reason to believe they will be successful.

While the council is not united in supporting the fee, a strong majority wanted to let voters decide, so on May 21 you will have your say. Voters may find it challenging to wade through the arguments of the fee critics but voters also understand the value of keeping our vital city services. The fee seeks to fill a real and immediate need while providing stability for our city’s future. Eugene Cares is asking voters to pass the fee so we can keep our city vibrant and our most vulnerable cared for. We recognize the challenge before us, but we also understand the impact of losing our valued services. We know Eugene cares and will step up to meet this challenge by voting “yes” on the city service fee. — Claire Syrett

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