Homelessness and Utility Fees

Two issues agonizing the Grants Pass City Council are becoming hotter and hotter as the summer wears on. The first one is homelessness, which draws people from the city and the county to complain about city parks, city streets, and private property impacted by the proliferation of tents, old RVs, trash, and drug paraphernalia. The second is the proposed Public Safety Utility Fee, which would add almost $23 to the utility bills of people living in single-family homes and varying fees to businesses, including non-profits and industries in the city.

During the Aug 2nd and Aug 16th regular meetings of the Council, several people complained that the homeless are ruining Grants Pass by scattering trash, doing drugs in plain sight, clogging the streets with their vehicle homes, and making city parks dangerous. One said the “scumbuckets” from other states are coming here to take advantage of Oregon’s lax drug laws. Others said people are encouraging homelessness by giving out “free stuff” and lamented Measure 110 (decriminalizing small amounts of drugs) as undermining the punishments that used to be incentives to straighten out.

Two people asked the Council to organize a letter-writing campaign to the Governor asking her to overturn Measure 110 which they believe exacerbates homelessness (the governor can’t overturn the voter-approved measure; the legislature would have to put a repeal on the ballot, or a citizen’s group would have to gather enough signatures to get a repeal on the ballot).

“I get it. It is an issue,” said Councilor Valerie Lovelace, who urged people to express their concerns about Measure 110 to their state representatives.

However, while complaining loudly about the need to “do something” about the homeless, none of the speakers offered viable solutions, and Councilmembers took issue with comments suggesting the police aren’t doing anything. Councilor Vanessa Ogier read a long list of police responses to homeless rule-breakers while others on the Council tied the complaints to the dire need to increase public safety funding. City Manager Aaron Cubic also clarified where parks funding comes from after one commenter said the city should stop funding parks out of people’s property taxes because they can’t use them. Cubic said parks funding doesn’t come from property taxes, it comes from the general fund fed by other taxes, fees, and grants.

Councilor Rob Pell also pushed back against complaints the Council “handcuffs” the police concerning homeless mayhem. Cubic and Operations Captain Tyler Lee assured the speakers this wasn’t the case.

“The Council is doing no hampering other than following injunction laws,” said Cubic. Lee said the revised ordinance passed by the council in July setting restrictions in city parks “is a big help.”

Councilors were very responsive to complaints from property owners about the homeless camping along their property lines strewing trash and starting fires. Councilor Brian DeLaGrange called for a discussion about mitigating risks to property owners through brush clearing and fencing. Pell reminded those complaining about the homeless that in 2020 they turned down a 10-cent increase in the public safety levy “and now you’re looking to the Council for solutions.”

Mayor Sara Bristol’s role was to read the rules regarding public comment time, call on people who wanted to speak, and time them so they didn’t exceed their allotted three minutes. She also clarified some points that came up during the comments.

“The City doesn’t send people to the park to help the homeless and the City wasn’t paying to run the small shelter that closed recently.” She also reiterated that the only way the City can start enforcing no camping rules in the parks is to provide a low-barrier shelter. Lovelace pointed out that the recent injunction appeal, while it failed, did clarify that if a city offers a low-barrier shelter, it can ban people from its parks.

After several meetings and a lengthy discussion, the Public Safety Utility Fee was approved at the August 16th meeting but left with zero funding, to be added, or not, after more public input. DeLaGrange said alternative ways to fund police and fire in Grants Pass hadn’t been thoroughly presented to residents and called for a survey to let them express their views. Lovelace shot back that she was tired of “kicking the can down the road” and after 15 meetings on the subject, it’s time to stand up and take a vote.

“I consider myself a leader and I will do something uncomfortable if it means public safety is there because that’s our number one job,” she said.

While DeLaGrange insisted there is still time to “fully vet the options” on the matter, Lovelace said once the decision is made to increase utility bills the Council needs time to “sell it.”

Pell and Ogier agreed with DeLaGrange while Councilor Joel King reminded them that one of the alternatives, a sales tax to fund the sheriff proposed by Josephine County Commissioners, was overwhelmingly voted down just last year. Ogier demonstrated the weight of the decision to raise utility bills on the decision-makers.

“The new fee is burdensome but the crush of modern society is real, police and fire are necessary services.” She said she understood the need to get the ”infrastructure” for raising the fees in place but said she too would like to get more information about how citizens feel about it from a survey.

Mayor Bristol pointed out that voting to amend the municipal code to establish the methodology of the fee is “just a placeholder” with the amount to be voted on later. The Council did vote five to three to approve that “methodology” with Pell, DeLaGrange, and Councilor DJ Faszer voting no. Faszer said he wasn’t sure constituents were clear on the matter and agreed with DeLaGrange that there is time to get more input. No one on the Council argued that funding for the city’s police and fire departments isn’t needed. More information about the Utility Fee can be found here Public Safety Utility Fee

There were a few people arguing against it during the public hearing on the utility fee including perennial commenter Mark Seligman who doesn’t live in the city but said he cares about the poor. Mayor Bristol reminded him not to use his public comment time to “campaign.” Seligman has announced he’s running for a seat in the Oregon House. So has Councilor Dwayne Yunker, who has advocated for a $50 public safety utility fee. Another perennial commenter, Judy Ahrens, said while she appreciates the police people are already financially overburdened like single parents “Well that’s a moral issue but I won’t get into that.” Rycke Brown, wearing one of her signature hats, also spoke against the utility fee saying public safety “isn’t a utility.”

The next reading of the amendment will be held at the Council’s Sept. 6th regular meeting.