Council takes action on street improvements, social service funding in tense meeting

An engineer’s report connected to street improvements, social service agency funding decisions and an antagonistic atmosphere that developed over the course of the evening highlighted a July 12 gathering of the Philomath City Council.

The meeting represented the first time that councilors had physically met at City Hall since before pandemic restrictions were implemented 16 months ago. Mayor Chas Jones and four of the six councilors attended in person with Jessica Andrade and Catherine Biscoe choosing to attend via Zoom. Combined with an earlier work session, the councilors met for more than four hours to try to get through the business of the city.

The agenda item attracting the most public interest involved the proposed North 11th Street Local Improvement District (LID). Seven homeowners that could be impacted financially to help fund a new asphalt roadway with curbs and sidewalks spoke before the council during the public comments portion of the meeting.

In general, the consensus requests from those who spoke was to pause the project and not approve the engineer’s report, instead using the information to launch into further discussions, including other ways that the street improvements could be funded.

The council ultimately decided that the engineer’s report would not be approved and instead be utilized as a tool to deliberate the merit of LIDs in Philomath. The issue will now apparently head to the Public Works Committee.

According to the engineer’s report, the total recommended project budget would run $882,000 with LID participants responsible for $742,000 of the costs — the other $140,000 coming from a sidewalk grant that the city had received. The report included proposed assessments for each property owner with dollar amounts that obviously shocked many of them.

“These are incredibly large dollar amounts on citizens and it’s going to affect our livelihood, potentially even homelessness,” one homeowner said. “We have a lot of concerns about the burden being placed on these citizens.”

Another property owner who has lived in Philomath for more than four decades added, “To go into debt again is not part of my retirement plan. We’re not wealthy, there are other options to fund the project other than on the backs of the hard-working people that live here.”

If the engineer’s report had been approved, the city would have scheduled a public hearing to give homeowners and others an opportunity to share their concerns.

“The engineer’s report is an important first step in what the project will cost and how the cost will be assessed to adjacent property owners,” City Manager Chris Workman wrote in his recommendation on the matter. “Holding the public hearing is the next important step in the process so property owners can voice their opinions.”

But the residents voiced their opinions earlier in the evening and councilors took them seriously. Biscoe made a motion early on to not approve the engineering report but to use the information for a discussion on LIDs while exploring other possible funding options.

“If we’re not responsive to that testimony, we’re not doing the job of representing our community members,” Biscoe said. “We have a choice to utilize this engineering report as a tool and a benchmark to springboard into a better conversion for local improvement districts, or not, but we need to look at all of our options and we need to look at Philomath as a whole …”

Councilor Ruth Causey said she didn’t believe any of the alternatives presented in the report were acceptable, saying “It’s too much money for any individual.”

Workman questioned how paying for street improvements would be structured through alternative methods and how that would work in relation to other projects in the city.

“It’s time to spread these costs across all of our residents,” Causey said, adding that she had no immediate answers but would look to Workman for alternatives.

Andrade also voiced opposition to the burden falling on homeowners, saying that there have been repeated requests for alternatives to LIDs.

The discussion continued into other areas, including how many other unimproved streets there may be in Philomath.

Social service funding

A routine vote in past years, the topic of annual social service funding allocations turned into a lengthy debate with an element of contentiousness in the air as the meeting’s hour grew late. Each year, the city designates funding to various nonprofit organizations that provide services benefiting Philomath residents.

The funding allocation process went through the Budget Committee as part of the budget process and then on to the Finance and Administration Committee, which met with organizations wishing to receive funding. In all, $22,000 was available for general social service funding and $10,000 could be allocated through the city’s water and sewer funds.

“I don’t feel comfortable making these decisions when the Finance and Admin has had over an hour or so to speak with them — and I understand that they gave everyone the thumbs up that you’re all deserving of money — but that doesn’t make our job any easier trying to figure out who gets cut,” Andrade said. “… It doesn’t seem right and I would ask instead that we have them come to us at a future work session to be able to listen to presentations, then we can make our decision at a council meeting.”

Andrade made a motion to table the vote based on her request for information and Biscoe then asked it to be amended with further details on the process that she would like to see implemented.

Biscoe added that she would like to evaluate the process thoroughly for next year and wants to make sure that the opportunity is known to other social service providers. She also indicated the desire for councilors to be involved throughout the process so they are well-versed on the organizations and their requests before taking a vote.

Causey disagreed and said the City Council doesn’t need to repeat the job of the Finance and Administration Committee. Andrade countered that she wants to see more documentation to make a more informed decision on the distribution of funds.

Andrade’s motion and Biscoe’s amendment both failed and the discussion moved forward to determining funding amounts. Biscoe had several questions on the funding allocations and used Philomath Community Services — an organization where she formerly volunteered and served on the board of directors — to illustrate a point.

Low objected to Biscoe’s comments and said she was attempting to malign Philomath Community Services “which I believe she has personal reasons to do so.” Low currently serves on the PCS board.

Biscoe said that she took exception to the accusation and would be happy to deliberate on the matter publicly, adding that she’s only curious about why the council is looking at funding without more insight into what’s going on.

Again, the amount of money allocated for social service agency funding came in at $22,000 and the city received $22,700 in funding requests. ABC House, a children’s advocacy center that serves Benton and Linn counties, had asked for $2,500 in 2020-21 and $5,000 in 2021-22, by far the largest increase among all of the requests. Councilor Teresa Nielson and Jones suggested that as such, the $700 that needed to be cut should come from the ABC House distribution.

Causey made a motion on funding and Nielson seconded. More discussion followed with Andrade reiterating the importance of knowing how funds were to be used with ABC House’s request serving as an example.

“What if that is something that makes or breaks their operations,” she said. “I think it’s very important that we don’t just go about making these decisions without the proper information … It’s just very irresponsible in my opinion.”

Causey pointed out that the ABC House is a “very broad agency that serves a broader area than many of these other agencies and is probably better funded than many of these other agencies.” Causey and Jones both opined that the cut would be appropriate.

The motion passed on a 4-2 vote with Andrade and Biscoe against, and Councilor Matt Lehman abstaining for conflict of interest reasons.

Specifically, organizations receiving funding included Philomath Youth Activities Club ($8,000), Philomath Community Services ($5,000), ABC House ($4,300), Meals on Wheels ($1,500), Strengthening Rural Families ($2,000) and Maxtivity ($1,200).

The council then passed on a 5-2 vote $9,000 in funding out of water and sewer funds for Vina Moses/FISH ($5,000) and We Care ($4,000) — agencies that assist those needing help with utility bills. Another $1,000 was available but the agencies were not given any more than they had requested.

Adjourning the meeting

After the final vote had been taken on the allocations and the mayor attempted to move to the next item on the agenda, Biscoe reiterated her recommendation to take a look at the actual process involved with social service funding decisions. She also again stated her exception to Low’s comments.

“One, (Low) was given prerogative to speak over me which I think is a bias that is present here and No. 2, certainly has a conflict of interest and No. 3, I’m happy to discuss publicly whatever it is that you think my agenda is Councilor Low, and I would like that to remain in the record in its entirety,” she said.

Jones told Biscoe that she was “completely out of order and it is not appropriate.”

Said Biscoe, “You called me to make my statement and I’m making it before we move on to the next topic,” she said. “I’m not sure how that’s out of order.”

After some more back-and-forth comments, Jones announced that “we are moving on.” Andrade attempted to comment but Jones said, “No, we are moving on.”

As Biscoe asked about when councilors could talk about the issue, Jones asked for the first reading of an ordinance to annex 9.32 acres on North 19th Street into the city — property owned by Northernwood LLC that had gone through a public hearing late last month. The ordinance’s first reading passed on a 7-0 vote.

On whether to continue the meeting with items remaining on the agenda, Low requested that it be adjourned.

“I’m just afraid the tenor of this meeting and the amount of time that’s taken repeating things over and over again and based on the hostility I derive from two councilors, I don’t think this would be a worthwhile exercise right now,” Low said.

Andrade had her hand up and was attempting to speak when Jones adjourned the meeting.

In other stories out of the Monday’s meeting:

• The council hosted a public hearing on the Housing Needs Analysis that is proposed to become a supporting document to future Comprehensive Plan updates. The analysis determines whether the city has enough land to accommodate 20 years of population and housing growth.

Councilors had questions about various details, clarifications and the process. No members of the public requested to speak during the hearing. The council now plans to hold deliberations on the analysis at its Aug. 9 meeting.

• During the public comments portion of the meeting, a Millpond Crossing homeowner shared ongoing frustrations and concerns over the lack of action or response from the developer concerning a stormwater run-off ditch located behind properties on the north side of Timothy Street. The homeowner said children routinely play on a sidewalk that was built next to the ditch along Willow Lane in a situation that he sees as a safety hazard and an example of unfulfilled promises. Meanwhile, homeowners along that stretch cannot landscape backyards or fence their properties. “I believe we deserve some clear communication,” he said. “I feel like we’re being strung along.”

Workman said he can’t speak to the developer’s lack of response and said the city is waiting for an updated plan on how to handle the situation. An issue involving the presence of methane gas in the development was also brought up by councilors. The Department of Environmental Quality and MPC Builders are apparently working on a mitigation plan that has not yet been submitted. Construction on new houses had been halted this summer because of the situation.

Councilors opted to send the Millpond Crossing safety hazard issues to the Public Works Committee for discussion.

VOTING RECORD
Following is a list of votes taken by the Philomath City Council at its July 12 meeting:
• To approve a consent agenda as amended that included only the June 28 City Council work session notes. Motion: Lehman. Seconded: Causey. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe, Causey, Jones, Lehman, Low, Nielson).
• To approve the June 14 City Council work session notes, June 14 City Council minutes and June 28 City Council minutes as amended. Motion: Lehman. Seconded: Low. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe, Causey, Jones, Lehman, Low, Nielson).
• To approve a “call to question” request to vote on the motion on the table. Motion: Causey. Seconded: Biscoe. Vote: Fails 4-3 (Yes—Biscoe, Causey, Nielson; No—Andrade, Jones, Lehman, Low).
• To amend a motion on the table to send the local improvement district issue to the Public Works Committee. Motion: Biscoe. Seconded: Andrade. Vote: Passes 5-2 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe, Jones, Lehman, Nielson; No—Causey, Low).
• To approve a “call to question” request to vote on the motion on the table. Motion: Jones. Seconded: Low. Vote: Passes 6-1 (Yes—Andrade, Causey, Jones, Lehman, Low, Nielson; No—Biscoe).
• To not approve the engineering report as it stands but use it as a tool to deliberate the merit of local improvement districts for use in Philomath and that the council will follow guidance to the 2020 council recommendation to evaluate other possible funding options for local street improvements (with previously approved amendment to send issue to Public Works Committee). Motion: Biscoe. Seconded: Andrade. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe, Causey, Jones, Lehman, Low, Nielson).
• To approve an amendment to a motion on the table on social service contributions (see below) regarding the process. Motion: Biscoe. Seconded: Andrade. Vote: Fails 3-3 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe, Causey; No—Jones, Low, Nielson; Abstained—Lehman).
• To hold off on deciding funding social service agencies until the City Council has an opportunity to have presentations from the social service agencies and to have the opportunity to ask them questions. Motion: Andrade. Seconded: Biscoe. Vote: Fails 4-2 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe; No—Jones, Low, Nielson; Abstained—Lehman).
• To approve $22,000 in social service contributions for fiscal year 2021-22 to various agencies. Motion: Causey. Seconded: Nielson. Vote: Passes 4-2 (Yes—Causey, Jones, Low, Nielson; No—Andrade, Biscoe; Abstained—Lehman).
• To approve an amendment to a motion on the table to allocate an additional $500 to each requesting agency to utilize the full $10,000 in funding available. Motion: Nielson. Seconded: Low. Vote: Fails 5-2 (Yes—Low, Nielson; No—Andrade, Biscoe, Causey, Jones, Lehman).
• To approve contributions from the water and sewer funds for fiscal year 2021-22 to Vina Moses/FISH in the amount of $5,000 and We Care in the amount of $4,000. Motion: Causey. Seconded: Lehman. Vote: Passes 5-2 (Yes—Causey, Jones, Lehman, Low, Nielson; No—Andrade, Biscoe).
• To approve Ordinance No. 850 annexing 9.32 acres on North 19th Street owned by Northernwood LLC. Roll-call vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Andrade, Biscoe, Causey, Jones, Lehman, Low, Nielson).
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