LA GRANDE — The La Grande City Council is set to discuss a wide array of pressing issues, from potentially raising ambulance fees or implementing a new gas tax to addressing housing issues and upgrading wildfire emergency plans during its annual retreat Tuesday, Jan. 26.
There are 11 items on the council’s wide-ranging agenda, several of which relate to funding issues. During the meeting, the council plans to discuss and establish budget priorities for the coming year.
Major issues include on the retreat agenda include the possibility of raising ambulance fee rates, which have not been raised for several years and do not cover ambulance service costs, addressing concerns over street conditions and the need for a larger facility for the La Grande Police Department and Union County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ve been talking about a new police station for years,” said La Grande Mayor Stephen Clements. “The question is: does the city undertake a new building on their own, or do they work collaboratively with the county to build a different facility?”
City Councillor Nicole Howard did not mince words about the state of La Grande’s street network.
“Our roads are really bad,” said Howard. “What’s clear is that our current public works budget is not in a place and cannot get to a place where it can do the city improvements that we need.”
The La Grande Public Works Department has developed a five-year plan to make improvements and maintain the city’s current road network with current resource levels, but as is stated in the meeting agenda: “it does not solve the situation.”
Clements said the costs of repaving city streets was prohibitively high given the budgetary restraints, and more funding would have to be made available to make improvements to La Grande’s street network.
“To take (the streets) all the way back down to gravel and build it back up, if I remember correctly, is about $7.50 a square foot,” Clements said. “So take that street, and let’s say that street is 40 feet across, just to do one linear foot is about … $280, just for one linear foot. Now, you do 100 feet and you’re $28,000, you do a quarter-mile and you’re well into $450,000 to $500,000.”
Options to increase funding for infrastructure include implementing a gas tax or a transportation system development charge.
“I think the council has been really hesitant to do this,” Howard said. “Six years ago, maybe seven now, they tried to pass a gas tax, and it failed … I think that was a bit of a blow.”
The council also plan to discuss understaffing in the city’s information technology department, the police department and at the city library, which could add two part-time positions.
“We surely need some extra support at the library, we’ve needed that for a number of years,” Clements said. “I don’t necessarily know that IT support requires us hiring someone, rather than … we can just contract for more hours (with the city’s IT provider).”
Planning is another discussion item, which includes the adoption of a housing production strategy to address the city’s housing shortage. State law requires the city to adopt such a strategy and has received grant funding to assist with the effort to develop of housing for all income levels, including affordable, middle-income and university student housing.
The council could consider “targeted incentives” as part of the housing production strategy, including reduced fees, tax abatement for new housing developments, formation of new urban renewal districts and public-private partnerships.
Homelessness, which has been a growing issue in La Grande, also is on the agenda. Proposals listed include the formation or leadership of a committee or the hosting of a forum on homelessness with local organizations that deal with the issue.
In a related topic, the council plans to discuss the what role the city should play in addressing and alleviating causes of local poverty, including housing, education and drug addiction.
On public engagement and communication, the council is looking at ways to get youth involved in city government, updating the city’s website and examining city departments’ use of social media accounts. Also up for consideration are La Grande’s recreation center, continued improvements of the Island Avenue corridor and changes to Cook Memorial Library’s services.
The council will also consider whether to continue development of a greenway, a project that neighboring Island City turned down grant funding to continue. The council will discuss potentially continuing development of the trail on existing city-owned properties.
Tourism also is on the docket. City Manager Robert Strope is recommending the allocation of “the entirety of funds dedicated to the Blue Mountain Conference Center” to the Union County Chamber of Commerce to reduce the impact of shortfalls in revenues.
The council also will explore undergoing a feasibility study for creating a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics center in La Grande for educational programs.
And, last but not least, considerations of the coming wildfire season and the wildland urban interface are on the agenda.
The council is considering actions the city might take to prepare the community for a wildfire event “such as the ones that devastated communities in 2020.” Potential courses of action on the agenda include formation of a committee and hosting a forum to discuss emergency plans to educate the council and the public.
“I am really trying to get this on people’s radar because I think it’s super important,” Howard said. “If you go to other communities, down in the south, they have hurricane evacuation routes signed … it wouldn’t take much to put a plan in place that takes into account: what if we don’t have cell service; what if 12,000 people get in their car at once and want to get out of here; who’s going to get the elderly?”
Howard said she would be pushing to make putting a plan in place more of a front-and-center issue for the council.
“We’ve got to have something in place,” Clements said on the issue of La Grande’s wildfire preparedness.
On Monday, Jan. 25, the city council discussed issues of economic development, including drawing businesses to La Grande, urban renewal, COVID-19 response and recovery and more.
“Obviously pandemic recovery (is a priority),” Howard said. “I’m guessing by the time summer comes, businesses that have limped this far may not be able to make it across the finish line. With each month, it gets more tenuous for a lot of businesses.”
The council’s retreat meeting establishing priorities for the coming year will begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26, and livestream on the city’s Facebook page at facebook.com/cityoflagrande.