Newport: Priorities – Funding – Construction: What stays in the budget and what gets reduced or cut.
Newport’s infrastructure committee continued to plod along Thursday toward its goal of figuring how how to best pay for terribly needed upgrades to the town’s sewer, water and storm drain systems. They’re very old and the town didn’t “pay it forward” like most towns across the county which all face similarly dismissal prospects of how to come up with the millions required to keep the water running, the toilets flushing and the streets properly draining, without polluting our beaches.
Public Works Director Tim Gross told the committee that Newport’s old sewer lines have yet to be fully video inspected. He said the lines themselves need to be mapped as to where they are and where they run, in addition to figuring out which lines need to be replaced the most.
As for the water lines, Gross said he has a good water line schematic of the town and pretty good estimates of when they were installed. However, a goodly portion of them, he cautioned, are getting to the end of their life span, and are beginning to break. Gross lamented that they’re going from one patch job to another because they don’t have the money to launch a comprehensive replacement program.
Interim City Manager Ted Smith chimed in saying that the committee should inform the city council that if things are as dire as they appear then the subject of cutting other aspects of city spending should be laid on the table; the so-called quality of life services like parks, recreation, the Visual Arts Center, the Performing Arts Center, the library – “the public should be informed,” he said. But Smith also added that floating a possible bond for a major portion of the upgrades should be carefully explained to the public, outlining that bonding spreads the financial burden out 20 years rather than sticking the full weight of the cost on the shoulders of today’s current population.
Gross said that the city should examine the hotel-motel room tax fund to ensure that a proper portion of it is applied toward the city’s infrastructure needs. Gross said the city needs to prioritize what needs to get done and in what order, and therewith target the funds necessary to make it all happen. Interim Finance Director Bob Gazewood took it a step further to question the city’s funding of various non-profit groups, who, although performing worthy missions in the town, may not be sufficiently aggressive in pursuing other avenues of funding.
Committee member and former city councilor Patricia Patrick-Joling said the city needs to assess what work it should do and then start socking the money away to get it done. She said the city should stick to essential services. “You can only spend what you have to spend. We need to prioritize,” she said. “For instance, what’s our rate of return on money we spend on economic development? Does anybody know?”
Committee member and City Councilor Ralph Busby echoed Patrick-Joling’s sentiments adding that the Newport Airport needs to be viewed as an investment – and to that end he said “What’s our return on the money we are putting into the airport?” Busby said “Aside from funds we’re using to match the big FAA grant that’s going for the runway rehabilitation project, the city is dumping an additional $300,000 a year into the airport. For what?” Busby says by his calculations the city is spending $50 for every airplane that takes off and $50 dollars for every airplane that’s landing. That’s spending – not income. Busby also again questioned whether the airport should continue trying to maintain a high level of certification with the FAA when it’s really not needed. Busby said if the airport ever gets scheduled air service again sometime in the future, the city could quickly get the certification back and all would be well. “But in the meantime we’re spending a lot of money out there and getting not only no return, it’s costing the city a lot of money – hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” he said. Busby added that the city might consider farming out airport operations to a private business, if that might be workable.
Community Development Director Derrick Tokos said the city needs to get its priorities straight and develop a budget that reflects those priorities; Police, Fire, Water, Sewer and on down the line. He said by having a clearly defined list of goals and a funding plan, it will help minimize cuts to quality-of-life-areas like the arts, recreation and so on. As for rolling stock like public works vehicles, police cars and fire engines, it was suggested that a short, perhaps five year, option tax could be floated to fund those needs. Gross said the city should establish a clearly defined level of services from police, fire, and other departments. “What should those standard levels of service be? How do we define them in a way that the public can understand them?” he asked.
At that point committeeman and former mayor Mark McConnell jumped into the discussion saying that “Newport is a tourist town and tourists don’t come to Newport to see its sewer and water projects. They come for the beauty and the charm of the coast.” One member of the public had earlier observed that frequent high pollution levels at the Nye Beach outfall and at other creek mouths up and down the city are an embarrassment when the pollution signs are put up and the health alerts go out over the media.
As discussions wound down, the committee began gearing up for their next meeting which is to be devoted to reorganizing the way the city delivers services. There’s hope that there could be substantial savings in not only the way services are delivered but also with an eye to finding ways to cut their costs.
The next infrastructure committee meeting is set for November 7th, 3pm, at City Hall. Their final report to the city council is due in January, just ahead of the city’s budget discussions for the 2014-15 fiscal year which begins July 1st.