City Council mobilizes assistance package

The Cottage Grove City Council approved an assistance package on Monday night designed to mitigate the ongoing financial hardships faced by local businesses and residents.

Following discussions with local businesses over the past two weeks, City Manager Richard Meyers presented to the council a package of assistance for residents and businesses burdened by the impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

The package includes assistance methods both substantial and modest.

At the top of the list is a shifting of funds which were established last July in the city’s Small Business Emergency Loan Program, managed by the third party Community LendingWorks out of Eugene.

The city set aside $100,000 for the program last year, a quarter of which was to be used as a $25,414 match from Business Oregon in grants and a remaining $74,500 to be loaned out.

Fortuitously, more money than expected became available and the match ballooned from the initial one-to-one ratio to a final total of about $85,000.

That grant money went out to help 11 local businesses, however the remaining loan funds found a rather lukewarm demand; only four $10,000 loans have been issued since the program began. Meyers reported that, as a result, a little more than $30,000 still remains.

The assistance package proposes that $15,000 be taken out of that loan fund and used for Community Sharing’s H20 program, which helps residents with water and sewer utility bills.

The remaining amount would stay with Community LendingWorks to be converted to a grant program to assist local businesses with utility costs.

Meyers said some businesses must pay a stormwater fee of $350 a month (due to large, impervious surfaces on the properties) while remaining closed, which has significantly burdened them financially.

The city manager proposed a two-tier approach, offering grants first to businesses which were closed by order of the state.

The second tier would focus on remaining businesses which have been impacted by the pandemic, though not completely closed.

Another item in the package recommended that the council approve allowing the installation of parklets (or streateries) earlier than March 15, 2021, the originally scheduled date.

Parklets are extensions of sidewalks into parking spaces and provide a small space for people to dine or relax, often outside restaurants.

Plans were in motion last year to initiate a pilot program for up to three parklets on Main Street, though financial and logistical issues delayed the project.

The city has applied for a grant with Travel Oregon to get the project completed and is currently awaiting an announcement on awardees.

Other assistance proposals included that the city waive a $35 utility turn-on fee for any business which has turned its city utilities on after being closed as a result of COVID-19 orders and waive a $25 liquor license renewal fee for businesses with an on-premises sale license that were ordered closed or restricted to take-out service only.

The waiver of the turn-on fee would impact less than 10 local businesses and the liquor license renewal fee waiver would impact about 20 businesses, according to the council meeting memorandum.

The city will also continue to lend out a limited number of canopies and curbside service options for businesses at no charge as part of the assistance.

Councilor Mike Fleck, who is also executive director of Community Sharing, stated Monday’s meeting that he did not believe he had a conflict of interest on the matter.

“Community Sharing is where I am employed, but every dollar of the H20 program goes directly to the client,” he explained. “Our agency does not receive any sort of administrative fee for doing that.”

In other council news:

• Five-Year Utility Plan

The council was presented with a five-year utility financial plan from the city’s consulting firm FCS Group, making recommendations for water, sewer and stormwater rates in the near-term.

The firm has performed a five-year financial plan for the city every five years since 2010. The presentation looked at the city’s revenues and projected what each utility needs in order to meet demands, recommending a rate increase for sewer but not for water or stormwater.

While FCS Group reported that customer growth alone will be sufficient to provide for rising operating expenses in both water and stormwater, capital plans and operating expenses for sewer caused the need for the rate increases.

The report recommended three years of 12 percent rate increases, highlighting a bit of urgency to do so as a financial shortfall is projected as early as 2022.

FCS Group also performed a cost-of-service analysis.

In an “early picture” break down of rate revenue that the city is currently collecting from its sewer customer classes, FCS Group recommended a different ratio of recovery.

A pie chart indicated that the residential class pays for 69 percent of cost recovery while the commercial pays for 26 percent.

“If we go through this scientific process of allocating costs to functions and then to customer classes, what the analysis tells us is that residential should not be paying 69 percent of the pie, but only 56 percent of the pie and commercial that is only paying 26 percent of the pie now should be paying 41 percent of the pie,” said the presenter.

The presentation prompted a discussion among staff and the council regarding Cottage Grove’s rates in relation to other cities and affordability among residents.

“It just seems like anything that’s going to go before the citizens of Cottage Grove that is going to ask them for a [sewer] rate increase is pretty much a non-starter,” said Councilor Jon Stinnett.

Many in the discussion, however, seemed to agree that a rate increase for sewer made sense in light of the data.

“We have to figure out a way to make this make sense to people, especially in a time of hardship and uncertainty,” Stinnett added.

Meyers also credited FCS Group’s planning with helping the city get its utilities into a financially manageable position over the years.

“Water and stormwater actually paying for projects out of the reserve and accomplishing things and moving those things off the list as we get them done – we were struggling for years before trying to get that done,” he said.

As the topic was a discussion item only, no decision was made, but may be a topic at a future goal-setting session.

• Change Order Approval

The city council approved extra work items totaling $95,868 for the Safe Routes to School and Fillmore Storm Water Project. The lion’s share of the change order ($93,438) went toward furnishing and setting electrical vault and furnishing and installing conduit and sweeps for Pacific Power, Charter Communication and CenturyLink. The work will move the companies’ lines underground.

Preceding the council’s vote, resident Duane Taddei commented to the council that the city did not have to pay for the work, citing Oregon Administrative Rules, city code and franchise agreements.

Meyers countered by citing a line which states that Pacific Power will convert existing overhead distribution facilities underground so long as the company is allowed to collect the costs associated with the conversion.

Meyers told The Sentinel in an interview that the money would “100 percent” be covered by the grant already being used for the Safe Routes to School project and not by the taxpayers.

• Street Study

The council revisited an issue looking at the possible addition of crosswalk striping on certain Cottage Grove streets.

During its Sept. 28 meeting, the council had previously approved a traffic study with only Councilor Kenneth Roberts opposing.

The study was prompted by a citizen request which asked that crosswalk striping be added across E. Main Street where it intersects with 12th Street in order to increase safety for pedestrians crossing on their way to the Lulu’s Dog Park.

The intersection is equidistant from crosswalks on Main Street at both 10th and 14th streets.

A study by Branch Engineering was performed in January focusing on pedestrian crossings on Main Street at 11th, 12th, 15th, 17th Streets as well as crossings along N. Gateway Boulevard, extending 500 feet south of W. Oswald Avenue.

The resulting report stated that an insufficient number of pedestrians were present to recommend whether safety would be increased by adding crosswalk striping.

However, pedestrians were recommended “not be encouraged to cross Gateway Blvd anywhere on the four-lane section.”

Any future traffic analyses were advised to focus on the intersection of12th Street due to the residential neighborhoods generating pedestrian traffic.

The report noted that “data collected for use in this analysis were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic and additional data collection may yield different results that could identify the need for additional crossing treatments during normal traffic circumstances …”

Cottage Grove Civil Engineer Ryan Sisson explained to the council that there would be no extra cost in conducting the study a second time.

“About half of the fee was spent on this analysis for East Main and Gateway,” he said. “And an email exchange with the consultant prior to this council meeting confirmed that the remaining balance would be used to finish the study when we revisit this.”

The study was projected to cost $5,000 in the previous council meeting.

Staff were directed to return with a recommendation for a traffic control solution or crosswalk at E. Main and 12th streets.

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