City services, staffing will stay at current levels

By Chris Baxter, The Observer June 20, 2012 09:30 am

By Bill Rautenstrauch

The Observer

The La Grande City Council approved proposed budgets for 2012-13 totaling about $43 million on Wednesday, preserving services at current levels and keeping staffing levels the same as last year.

The city’s budget committee formulated its 2012-13 recommendations in May and passed them on to the council for final adoption in the June regular session.

By law, the council has the option of adjusting the recommended budgets by 10 percent. No major changes were recommended Wednesday, though Councilor John Bozarth zeroed in on an item that increases the city’s tree care educator’s hours from 19 to 20. 

With 20 hours, the employee would qualify for some health care and pension benefits. Bozarth said making her position a benefitted one will cost the city an additional $10,200 year.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Bozarth said. He said he believes the increase would be unfair to taxpayers, and also worries that changing the position would set an unwanted precedent.

He suggested putting the $10,200 back in the general fund, and giving the employee a raise instead.

A vote on that failed. After some debate, the council voted to keep the $10,200 in the urban forestry division budget as proposed. The position will be upgraded.

The tree care educator coordinates the programs of the city’s Urban Forestry Division, including the street tree planting program, a tree removal and replacement partnership with Oregon Trail Electric Co-op, the Adopt a Tree and Memorial Tree Programs, and more. She also does work in ordinance and code enforcement related to urban forestry, works with volunteers and does community outreach and education.

The proposal to make her a benefitted employee had the backing of the city’s Community Landscape and Forestry Commission. In a letter to the council, Chair Robin Maille said the Urban Forestry Division is a vital city program and that the tree care educator provides valuable service.

“Given this value, we feel the additional hour per week and benefits will underscore our appreciation of these services and their contribution to the City of La Grande,” Maille said.

Wednesday’s council meeting at City Hall was mostly routine.

In one item, the panel approved a proposed franchise agreement with Eastern Oregon Net, Inc., one that will allow EONI to build a fiber optic connection along Washington Avenue, terminating at the Sac Annex.

Jeff Crews of EONI told the council the line will be mostly above ground. City Manager Robert Strope said the franchise agreement is identical to one that is already in place with LightSpeed Networks, Inc.

After adjourning its Wednesday meeting, the council reconvened as the Urban Renewal Agency board. The board adopted a $3.6 million, 2012-13 URA budget, and also awarded a contract for blight abatement at the IOOF/State Theater building. IRS Environmental of Portland, Inc., with a $168,450 bid, was awarded the contract.

The contract will be administered by the city and not by consultant AMEC Environment and Infrastructure as originally intended. City Manager Robert Strope told the board that AMEC had asked for an increased fee to administer the contract.