City mulls user fee

By Dick Mason, The Observer April 05, 2013 12:03 pm

by Dick Mason/The Observer

Faced with a tight budget outlook, the City of La Grande may begin charging a user fee to help fund its parks and recreation system. 

The La Grande City Council has asked City Manager Robert Strope to look into the pros and cons of a parks user fee. Strope will report his findings to the city council at its May 8 meeting. Strope said that should the council decide to institute a parks user fee, it would likely take effect in July 2014. 

The city council can institute a parks user fee on its own without holding an election. 

“You do not need a vote of the people. The council has the authority to enact it,” Strope said Thursday.

Each $1 of a user fee would raise $50,000 a year, Strope said. 

Strope will not make a recommendation to the council regarding what he thinks a parks user fee should be. He instead will suggest that the council have the city’s parks and recreation advisory committee make a recommendation following the May 8 meeting, should the council choose to pursue a parks user fee.  

La Grande residents would pay the user fee through their monthly water bill, just as the city’s $8-a-month street user fee is now. The street user fee generates $400,000 a year.

Councilor John Bozarth said Thursday he opposes a parks user fee.

“I’m not for it at this time, the timing is wrong,” Bozarth said.

The councilor explained he does not believe the time is right because the city’s sewer and water rates may be going up soon. The council will vote later this spring on a city staff proposal to raise sewer rates 5 percent and water rates 10 percent. 

The proposed rate hikes would take effect in July.

La Grande Mayor Dan Pokorney said he is presently opposed to a parks user fee because it would be enacted by the council and not a public vote.

“I’m not in favor of imposing fees on citizens,” Pokorney said. “If we are going to ask people to pay more, let them vote on it.”

The mayor said he considers a fee as another tax.

“I don’t want to impose an additional tax,” Pokorney said.

Still, the mayor said he is open minded about a parks user fee. Pokorney said he could change his mind and support one if it were small, had strong public support and would help the city maintain its level of service. 

Councilors likely to be strong supporters of a parks user fee include Jerry
Sebestyen.

“I’m very much in favor of exploring a parks user fee,” Sebestyen said.

Sebestyen said he has long been impressed by
La Grande’s parks and wants to do what he can to maintain their level.

“The quality of our parks are one of the things which makes La Grande, La Grande,” he said. “They are marvelous open spaces.”

Sebestyen noted that when La Grande hosts softball and baseball tournaments that draw people from outside this region, he hears many people compliment the city on the quality of its parks. Sebestyen wants La Grande’s parks to continue to be a shining light. 

“It is a quality of life issue. They need to be maintained,” he said.

Sebestyen believes that La Grande’s parks are being run efficiently. He points to statistics presented at a council work session on Monday to make his point. The statistics from a 2012 survey conducted by the National Recreation and Parks Association, indicate that the City of La Grande has fewer parks employees per acre than the national average.

The City of La Grande Parks and Recreation Department maintains 12 properties on 206 acres. The facilities it operates on these properties include Veterans Memorial Pool.