Amanda Weisbrod

The Urban Renewal Agency and the City of La Grande budget committees held hearings Monday and Tuesday evenings to decide funding priorities for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Notably, the City of La Grande Budget Committee earmarked $325,000 for a new roof at Cook Memorial Library and made a last-minute decision to dedicate funds from the general reserve to help Arts Center East make its building, which is owned by the city, more ADA accessible.

The URA Budget Committee, meanwhile, renewed and updated the Call for Projects program, and agreed to continue the practice of under levying, which will boost the city’s general fund.

After much debate, the city’s budget committee decided to allocate up to $50,000 in matching funds to ACE for adding accessibility features to its building, which may include a ramp. Councilor Nicole Howard brought this proposal to the discussion.

“This is a city service,” she said of the art center. “But it’s not available to people with disability issues…. I would like to make a motion tonight that we should support them.”

While some members of the committee disagreed at first with the notion of allocating funds to a private entity, the final consensus was to “fence-in” general reserve money for the project. If the art center is not able to acquire its half of the matching funds before this fiscal year ends, the budget committee will have the opportunity to decide if it wants to continue to set aside funding.

The city also decided to pay off a sewer loan two years in advance, which will ultimately save an estimated $86,000 in interest, according to the packet provided to the budget committee.

The beginning cash balance for the City of La Grande’s general fund is just shy of $5 million, but will end at $3.7 million due to expenditures, 70% of which account for labor costs.

La Grande City Manager Robert Strope said the budget committee has taken steps to reduce this deficit as much as possible.

“We plan to address the shortfall by using the fund balance as recommended by the Fiscal Committee to avoid service cuts,” Strope wrote to the budget committee. “The resulting general fund ending balance will be $3,755,072, which includes $300,000 of contingency funds and $1,200,000 reserved for future expenditures.”

The URA decided to continue its Call for Projects program, which offers grants to improve infrastructure and underused properties in the Urban Renewal District with the goal of boosting economic development by offering more services and job opportunities to community members. New this year, CFP will have separate programs for the La Grande Business and Technology Park and the remainder of the URD.

“One of the things that came out of the agency’s retreat was the challenge of trying to differentiate between a project at the business and technology park (and the rest of the district), so the agency wanted to look at splitting those out,” Strope said at Monday’s budget hearing session. “The criteria is essentially the same.Both will be done as a part of the Call for Projects, but we’ll be closing two separate pools of money.”

The URA gets its funding from the difference in property tax revenues from the original rate that was set in 1999 and what the property tax values are today. But because it under levies, or doesn’t absorb the entire profit from these property taxes, some money goes back to the taxing jurisdictions, notably of which includes the City of La Grande, Union County and the La Grande School District.

The City of La Grande will receive an estimated $376,550 from this under levying process — making it one source of additional revenue for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The other is related to the newly adopted Utility Licensing Ordinance.

Under this ordinance, utility providers must apply for a license to operate in right-of-way areas and will pay a 7% fee to the city based on gross revenue. Strope said he anticipates the fee to bring in an additional $200,000 to the city, and the raised fee will add 2 cents to the dollar on utility bills for customers of Avista, Oregon Trail Electric Co-op and the City Garbage Service.

Both the Urban Renewal Agency and the City of La Grande budget committees approved the proposed 2019-2020 budgets, which will be sent to the La Grande City Council for a vote at its regular session June 5.