Medford council votes to increase utility fees

The boost will help pay for a new police headquarters and for three firehouses

The Medford City Council voted Thursday to hike residents' utility fees to pay for a $32 million bond to build a new police headquarters and three firehouses. The unanimous vote will raise the utility fee for every resident and business by $2 per month the first year. The fee will gradually rise, topping out at $4.82 per month by the fifth year. However, this increase will coincide with a decline in a $2.82 street fee.

The net effect is that by the end of five years, the overall utility fees would rise from $49.71 to $51.79 per month.

The bond will pay for a $21.6 million police headquarters and parking garage at Ivy and 10th streets. Meanwhile, Medford Fire-Rescue will receive $10.6 million rebuild three new firehouses, which officials claim are outdated.

In addressing the Council before the vote, Medford police Chief Tim George described a police station that did not meet the growing department's needs. The agency currently works out of the first floor of Medford City Hall.

George said residents are put at risk because suspects often are escorted through the city hall building in close proximity to the public.

In addition, the department parks its patrol vehicles in an open lot across the street, leaving the fleet vulnerable to vandalism and the elements.

The antidote to these issues is building a 42,000-square-foot facility with protected parking, George argued.

The new headquarters and parking garage will cost $21.6 million, about $250 per square foot.

A police headquarters cannot be build with the same standards as a normal office building. The building requires security features such as interview rooms and seismic upgrades to ensure it would survive an earthquake.

The Medford Fire-Rescue projects will cost $10.6 million to rebuild three fire stations.

Medford Fire-Rescue Chief Gordon Sletmoe said the current facilities are not large enough to fit some of the fire engines. In addition, one of the buildings does not have proper ventilation, which causes the living quarters to fill up with exhaust when a vehicle is started up in a bay.

"They also do not have updated fire escapes, which mean firefighters could become trapped in their living quarters in case there was a fire," Sletmoe said.

The council has the power to raise utility fees without presenting the bond measure to a public vote.

Councilor John Michaels voted for the utility fee increase because he sees police and fire facilities as a core safety function.

Michaels noted the option was there to allow voters to decide whether they wanted to pay for new police and fire stations.

"But I felt this is something we need to act on at council level," Michaels said.

Some on the council said they were certain voters would approve such a bond measure if it was presented to them. However, the ballot process would take several months and building costs would continue increasing in the meantime.

Councilor Daniel Bunn believed the utility fee hike was fair because it "hits the community equally."

Councilors Bob Strosser and Chris Corcoran expressed concern and unease about raising the utility fee, but in the end both decided that they would take hard votes to pay for essential fire and police services.

"I'm not entirely happy about a utility fee," Strosser said.

City Manager Eric Swanson said the vote represents the first steps in a lengthy process. He said it would most likely take two to three years before the police would occupy the new headquarters.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.


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