Aug 14, 2006

Hey, OREGONIAN: $20 Million Isn't A Molehill

I take exception to Eric Mortenson's article, "Citizens passion spent on molehills of public policy" in the August 13, 2006 Sunday Oregonian. The basic tone of the article suggested that small town city councils and staff spend too much time spinning their wheels on trivial matters. As examples of public policy molehills, the article cited an endless public debate about streetlamp colors in Sherwood, a public catfight about whether cats should be licensed in Albany, and in Troutdale, in Mortenson's words, "city councilors backpedaled from supporting a $15 million urban renewal plan after critics assailed a belated revelation that the proposal would increase property taxes -- by $7 a year."

The "critic" who initially assailed the "belated revelation" was yours truly. Belated revelation? No way. It was an outright deception by our urban renewal consultant.

Troutdale's $7 per year tax increase wasn't a molehill. According to city staff, over the fourteen years of the project's life this increase will collect $577,000 in tax dollars for the urban renewal district. But the tax itself wasn't the most controversial topic. As described earlier here, during a public hearing at the January 24, 2006 Troutdale city council meeting, urban renewal consultant Jeff Tashman admitted he intentionally withheld information about the property tax increase until sending an e-mail to the city on January 9, 2006.

During questioning at the public hearing, I asked Tashman why he intentionally deceived us. He said he didn't think the city council or Troutdale's citizens would understand the complexities of tax increment financing, so he withheld the tax increase impact information. (In spite of this deception, city staff decided to continue using Tashman's services. Tashman has been involved in just about every recent urban renewal district in the state, so he knew exactly what he was doing. Unfortunately, Troutdale City Council rules prohibit us from using any influence, persuasion or pressure on the city administrator to hire or fire city employees, contractors or consultants.)

By then, though, the damage on the city's credibility due to Tashman's deception was already done. Prior to January 9, the city already held two public outreach meetings in neighborhood schools,several ad-hoc urban renewal committee meetings, a combined citizens advisory/parks advisory committee meeting, and several city council work sessions to discuss urban renewal. During these meetings, Tashman and city staff were asked about the potential property tax impact to Troutdale property owners. We were all told there would be none.

In addition to the unconscionable deception regarding the tax increase, at the same public hearing Tashman admitted that construction estimates he provided for the urban renewal plan were "soft". Some of his supporting data was at least eight years old. I'm speaking only for myself and not necessarily for the rest of the Troutdale city council, but I didn't consider fantasy construction estimates for a $20 million urban renewal project or intentional deceptions regarding $577,000 in property tax increases to be "molehills of public policy".

There was no backpedaling from urban renewal as the Oregonian article suggests.
Troutdale's citizenry and the city council were divided on the entire urban renewal issue even before the property tax increase became known. A Troutdale urban renewal ballot measure failed with a 70% "no" vote in 2002. We're still paying off the bond for the sewer treatment plant demolished to make way for the urban renewal project. The tax revenue going to the urban renewal district means less money for area schools.

I stated several times at council meetings and on here, here, ,and here that I would not support urban renewal without voter approval. Other city councilors were against the project for their own reasons. This division of opinion was the reason the city council referred urban renewal to Troutdale's voters, who gave their approval this time.

Finally, I have to comment on a quote in Mortenson's article from Ethan Seltzer, director of the School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. Seltzer thinks elected officials and professional staff of small cities are too easily distracted by citizen input at public meetings. "It doesn't take a lot of people to make it feel like you have to respond to them", he said.
With elitist attitudes like this being fed to newly minted urban planners and government wonks, it's no wonder that certain cities and counties in Oregon have ignored their constituent's wishes about light rail, urban renewal, tax abatements for million dollar condos, trams, business taxes, publicly financed local elections, property rights, I could go on and on. . .

Troutdale may be a small town, but we listen very closely to our citizens' mountains as well as molehills. $20 million isn't a molehill, and last time I checked, we all agree on the color of our light poles. But if the color bugs you, come on down. We'll be glad to talk with you.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Well put.