Oregon city closes after City Council fails to pass a budget
LEXINGTON, Ore. (AP) — The recorded message greeting callers to Lexington City Hall on Monday was brief and to the point: “The town of Lexington is closed until further notice,” a woman’s voice said. “Thank you.”
Roads and businesses in the town of 238 people, nestled in the wheat-covered hills just north of Heppner, are still open. But city government is closed and its two employees laid off after the city council failed to pass a 2019-20 budget before the start of the fiscal year.
The closure follows months of contention at city hall between Mayor Marcia Kemp and city councilors over an empty seat on the council, resulting in several full and “verbally rowdy” city council meetings, according to coverage by the Heppner Gazette-Times.
Kemp said she doesn’t know why three of the four city councilors failed to show up to a budget hearing scheduled for Thursday evening, but their absence cost the city the quorum it needed to pass a budget.
″(The Oregon Department of Revenue) advised me since the town did not approve the town’s budget by June 30, 2019, the town does not have any authority to spend money as of July 1, 2019,” she wrote in an email to the East Oregonian.
Kemp closed city hall, collected all keys to the building and let the city recorder and maintenance employee know they were out of a job until the problem was resolved. She has scheduled a public meeting for next Monday at 7 p.m. at city hall to discuss the issue, but said the League of Oregon Cities advised her that councilors wouldn’t be able to vote on a budget that night if they showed up.
“I am awaiting further clarification and still plan on having a community meeting,” she said.
Councilor Bill Beard declined to answer questions about why he hadn’t shown up to the budget meeting last week or whether he had known about it ahead of time.
“I’m not going to comment because there doesn’t seem to be any communication when it comes to (the mayor),” he said.
Marcia Sticka, the lone councilor at Thursday’s meeting, along with councilors Curtis Thompson and Bobbi Gordon, couldn’t be reached Monday.
Thompson was appointed to the council June 11 over the objections of Kemp and Sticka. According to the Heppner Gazette-Times, they alleged Thompson shouldn’t be on the council because he cursed at and was “verbally abusive” toward the city clerk after his water was shut off for nonpayment.
After he applied for a seat vacated in 2018 Kemp stated that the city charter’s language about the “full city council” voting on an appointment included allowing the mayor to vote, even though the mayor would normally only vote in the event of a tie. After months of disagreement, Beard and Gordon outvoted Sticka last month to first clarify that the city charter meant only councilors, not the mayor, then voted Thompson into office.
Former city councilor Sheila Miller, who is still listed on the city’s website as its emergency contact, said the meeting was so heated it was no wonder city councilors didn’t take note of the special budget meeting that had been announced. She said the mayor didn’t do “due diligence” by making sure they got a reminder.
“The last meeting was so stressful and out of hand that they didn’t realize it had been scheduled,” she said.
Eddie Dickenson, who has handled maintenance for the city of Lexington for a little over two years, had a different take, saying it was suspicious that three councilors “couldn’t be bothered to show up” after feuding with the mayor. He said he normally enjoyed his job, but had walked out of a couple of city council meetings to take a break from listening to people “literally screaming at each other.”
“The last three meetings have been a nightmare,” he said.
Dickenson optimistically called his layoff a “vacation” and said he hopes a budget gets passed next week so that he can return to work quickly.
“They just voted the recorder and I a raise, and then they turn around and do this,” he said.
Kemp is seeking advice from various state agencies, the city’s legal counsel, Morrow County, the city’s insurance company and the League of Oregon Cities on how to proceed. Until Lexington’s government is up and running again, the city can’t pay its bills. Residents will not be able to obtain permits, pay their utility bills in person or access other services normally available at city hall. Residents can mail payments, but the U.S. Postal Service is currently holding the city’s mail.
According to information provided by Oregon Department of Revenue public information officer Rich Hoover, if any expenditures are made without the appropriation authority provided by passing a budget, “the officials who allow or authorize such expenditures might be held personally responsible for the repayment of the money.” He also stated that it was possible that Lexington could lose their tax levy for the year if it was successfully challenged in court.
Hoover said as of 2017 ghost towns were no longer subject to local budget law after Oregon ghost towns whose members didn’t reside there year-round struggled to get a quorum to pass a budget by July 1. Lexington, while small, is not considered a ghost town.
Morrow County Board of Commissioners Chair Jim Doherty said Monday morning that he hadn’t been aware of Lexington’s closure. He said he would reach out and see what the county might need to do to fill in gaps, but noted that this wasn’t the first time Lexington had been struggling with its status as a city.
“The last couple of years they’ve kind of been hanging in the balance in being incorporated,” he said.
Lexington was incorporated in 1903.