Baker council nixes utility increase, leaving budget still out of balance

Despite facing a $171,000 shortfall in the city budget, the Baker City Council voted Tuesday against raising sewer and water rates.

The move might mean decreased police and fire services and possibly salary cuts for elected officials and department heads.

Before the vote, the council heard from residents such as Betty Johnson, who argued that the city should ask for a tax if it needs more money instead of raising utility rates. “The citizens of Baker shouldn’t have to bear the burden of mismanagement. There was a surplus in utilities last year, and it was transferred to the general fund,” she said.

There is no other way to keep the city afloat, Mayor Harold Rideau said. “I have looked at this thing all the way down. If it was a donkey, I would have lifted its tail and looked there,” he said.

A decrease in the city’s fire rating would cost homeowners a lot more than the proposed $6 per month water rate hike because their homeowner’s insurance premiums would rise, Fire Chief Danny Edwards said.

Without the extra utility funds, the fire department will have difficulty maintaining its current level of service.

The failure of the utility fee increase could also mean residents may have to wait longer for police, because fewer officers would be available, officials said.

The proposal called for increasing the flat water fee from $9 to $15 per month for residents inside the city. The per gallon usage would have gone up from $1.50 to $1.75 per thousand gallons. Calculated based on an average household usage of 4,000 gallons, most homeowners’ per gallon total cost would have increased $1 per month.

The sewer rate would have gone up from $14 to $16 per month for residents.

The proposal also called for tying utility rates to the Consumer Price Index, which would have allowed the city to raise rates to keep up with inflation.

Council members John Givens, Charles Vincent and Joyce Burges voted against the water rate increase.

Robert Young cast a vote for the measure and claimed immediately after that he meant to vote against it.

Pete Heine voted in favor of raising the water rate.

Givens, Vincent, Burges and Young opposed the sewer rate hike and Heine cast the lone vote for the increase.

“I don’t believe we should put this burden on our citizens,” Burges said.

After the vote, the council discussed instituting a mandatory or voluntary decrease in salaries for elected officials and department heads, but took no action.

City attorney Ken Fabre said the council cannot mandate salary decreases for employees with civil service protection. He added that the amount of money that could be saved by voluntary salary cuts wouldn’t do much to help the city’s budget woes.

Edwards,the fire chief, expressing disappointment in the vote against the utility increase, said he would not participate in any salary cuts. “We had the opportunity to fix this problem earlier in the meeting and voted it down,” he said.

Rideau also came out against salary cuts, comparing them to Huey P. Long’s legendary deduct box. “You had to put the money in the box if you wanted to keep your job,” Rideau said.