The Albany City Council will make a bad decision on Wednesday night, because it has no other alternative. It must choose between the lesser of two evils.
There is no “right” answer before your local elected officials as they consider how to rectify a budget shortfall, only a course that is less crummy.
And so we’d like to take a moment to thank our city councilors. You’re going to get heat no matter what you do. Thanks for signing up to be a community punching bag, which is part of this community service gig.
To recap, the city of Albany’s two-year budget for 2021-23 is $352 million as adopted, but that’s roughly $5 million short of maintaining service levels.
The reason for the shortfall? Property tax revenues, limited by ballot measures in Oregon, aren’t increasing enough to keep up with inflated costs for wages, health insurances and materials.
The city has a remedy in a proposed city services fee that would apply to all developed properties within Albany. The fee would increase utility bills by $9 per month for single-family residential properties, and raise roughly $2.8 million in additional revenue each year.
If the city doesn’t approve the fee by June 30, budget cuts would result, including reductions for the Albany Fire Department equal to nine positions. A hiring freeze would remain for the Albany Police Department, and cuts would also occur for library, courts and park services.
Of course, this sounds less than optimal, but the budget must be balanced. Cutting public safety workers during a global pandemic isn’t exactly reassuring, nor is cutting services that make a city more livable for its residents. Just as a reminder, the city of Albany, like many municipalities, spends huge amounts of dough on public safety, so, naturally, if cuts need to be made, they generally occur to police and fire departments.
The other option to consider for the City Council is that the $9 monthly fee, if passed, will pose an actual hardship for some residents, such as those on fixed incomes.
The fee, which adds up to more than $100 per year, would take effect July 1, and would come at a time when rates for water, sewer and garbage services also are increasing.
It also would come at a time when rents keep rising to astronomical levels in Albany, which used to be something of an affordable oasis compared to Corvallis. Now we’re not really sure where people go to escape high rents in the mid-Willamette Valley. Sweet Home? Scio?
There have been plenty of discussions about affordable housing in our communities, yet we continue to pile on fees and rate increases and more.
Prices at the grocery store and for other goods also are surging, so an extra $108 a year might not seem like much, but it could end up being a huge deal for some families.
The city of Albany, naturally, is looking at establishing a low-income assistance program for its city services fee, and that also could be discussed on Wednesday.
To be clear, we are against the fee, but the likeliest outcome is that it will pass. Again, this is understandable, though not ideal.
We appreciate that it’s far more difficult to trim departments across the board or prioritize resources, such as public safety, which should be a last resort in budget cuts.
But if this city services fee does pass, we’d still recommend that the city of Albany start looking at ways to trim its budget. What is really essential for residents and what contributes most to the quality of life in Hub City? Are there ways to consolidate services throughout Linn County or even with Corvallis and other areas of Benton County to gain efficiencies?
This will be hard work and cause plenty of headaches, but opportunities to save might be discovered. Perhaps the city can run leaner and gradually reduce or eliminate the fee. Or perhaps by being frugal, Albany simply will be better positioned to deal with budget woes in the future.