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Medford council weighs utility increase

MEDFORD — Citing the tumultuous economic climate, the Medford City Council called Thursday for additional discussion and information before raising utility fees over the next five years.

Council members and Mayor Gary Wheeler acknowledged the need for the utility hikes at some point to cover the rising costs of maintaining streets, storm drains, sewers and planning services.

"I understand the need for this, but I don't think we can do it right now," Councilman Greg Jones said.

Medford residents would see an increase of up to $11 in their overall utility bills by 2014 under the proposal.

The fees would raise about $5.9 million over five years for public works.

The plan chosen by the council for consideration, would increase the total utility bill for a single-family residence from $21.66 to $23.62 in 2010. Fees would be set at $25.56 in 2011, $27.49 in 2012, $31.07 in 2013 and $32.73 in 2014.

Those figures exclude public safety, water and city park fees.

John Larkin, owner of Roxy Ann Lanes on South Pacific Highway, pleaded with the council to defer the utility rates hike as local businesses have been hit hard by the recession.

"You are bleeding us dry," Larkin said. "How can the city of Medford live in such a vacuum that it doesn't realize what's going on in the rest of the world?"

Medford Public Works Director Cory Crebbin noted that Medford's are among the lowest utility fees compared to most Oregon cities of its size.

Councilman Al Densmore argued that the proposal could be delayed until the economy turns around.

"I'm not sure I'm personally at a point where I'm ready to move this forward," Councilman Bob Strosser said.

Councilman James Kuntz fears that putting off sewer maintenance invites higher costs down the road.

He said sanctions brought on by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency could cost the city millions if inspectors find fault in the city's sewer and water systems.

"When the federal government steps in and offers to help, they are not our friends," Kuntz said.

In the end, the council called for an additional study session to discuss the proposal. They also were in favor of hosting more public forums where residents and business owners could etch their options into the city record.

"We are going to have to deal with this and I'm not sure everybody's going to be happy with our decisions," Strosser said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.