Is Local Government Boring?

My first experience in local government was service as a student planning commissioner for the City of Bend in 1970-71. I was taking a class with about five other students that required us to investigate whether we should turn one of Bend’s downtown streets into a pedestrian mall. We attended several planning commission meetings to learn more about the planning process and to clarify what was expected of us.

I don’t remember much about those meetings, but I do recall a very long debate about whether a proposed garage should be allowed to encroach into an alley by several inches. I also remember wanting to bolt for the door after about a half-hour of listening to this discussion. The larger issues were lost on me, and I couldn’t work up much interest in the fate of the garage.

Many of the issues local government faces are not inherently interesting unless and until they have some particular effect on you. Nearly everyone has some interest in taxes, while very few people seem to care about the City’s annual budget. Perhaps that explains why after multiple public meetings where a plan to raise revenue this year was discussed, no one voiced any objections until the Council was actually ready to vote on the proposal. I suppose someone could argue that it was all done in secret if the meetings had not been televised, streamed live, and then archived on the City’s website, publicized in the newspaper and held during the same general timeframe for the past few decades.

I think a better explanation is that most people just aren’t interested in taking the time to participate in or understand local government.

Just as I wasn’t very excited about sitting through planning commission meetings years ago, I assume most people would rather spend time with their family, enjoy some recreation, or earn more money than attend public meetings. Overseeing the policies that govern a community of more than 50,000 people requires effort and commitment that most of us reserve for things like making a living.

Despite the hard work associated with local governance and the minutiae that occasionally goes along with it, successfully addressing the challenges confronting a community really isn’t boring.

Our last council meeting was a good example of how important and interesting the work of local government officials can be. The Council discussed maintaining a commitment to investing in art, changes in the City’s transportation system, supporting resolution of a labor dispute, backing construction of a new Benton County jail, approving two significant infrastructure projects, and making Albany a “Flag City.” Councilors also heard from a citizen who feels the City is not doing enough to make dog owners clean up after their pets.

My Bend High School class worked for several months on our project before recommending that the city not build a pedestrian mall in the downtown. We suggested, instead, that the alley fronting the river should be improved and that no streets be closed. Our recommendation was accepted, and downtown Bend seems to be doing well 45 years later. Local government isn’t always interesting, but it is important and is frequently rewarding.

What is Urban Renewal?

Urban renewal districts and the agencies that administer them have been around for generations, but there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about how they work. The concept is simple enough and generally resembles a deferred compensation program many of us invest in for our retirement.

Oregon law allows cities or counties to designate an area within their jurisdiction that is blighted or in need of renewal. Usually, the blight is self-evident in the form of vacant buildings or lots, higher crime rates, and lower property values. Urban renewal attempts to correct these problems, not by increasing taxes, but by distributing them in a different way. Property taxes within a district are directed to all the taxing entities within the district and are held constant at the time the district is created. The distribution of those taxes does not change over time. Only increases in assessed value, either from new construction or rising values, are dedicated to improvement projects within the district that help accelerate its renewal. Projects can range from infrastructure improvements to fixing up old buildings. The taxing jurisdictions, such as school districts, counties, and cities, are essentially investing the increase in value with the expectation of a much larger increase in revenue when the renewal designation expires.

The controversy over urban renewal usually arises because someone notices that tax revenues that might be applied to pressing problems today are being used for purposes that only pay off in the longer term. California Governor Jerry Brown, when faced with a fiscal crisis in his state a few years ago, terminated all of the state’s urban renewal agencies to close immediate funding gaps. This move certainly helped state government solve its most pressing shortfalls, but it did so at the expense of many cities and their future revenue growth. Just as cashing in an IRA early might allow someone to solve a financial problem today, California’s decision will mean there will be less money to support services down the road.

Urban renewal, however, isn’t just about the distant future. Albany’s urban renewal advisory board heard a report this week from local businessman Herb Yamamoto about the effects of an urban renewal partnership with his company, CADD Connections. He pointed out that the grants and loans that allowed him to purchase a dilapidated building on Seventh and Lyon not only helped remove an eyesore, but also attracted at least 16 jobs to Albany. The redevelopment of his property increased the property tax revenue from the site and added jobs to the local economy at a time during the recession when few people were investing in anything.

Anyone with a retirement account knows that not every investment is successful. Similarly, not all urban renewal investments produce a benefit in the short term. Critics point to these projects as evidence of failure, when they may only represent a relatively small percentage of the overall investment. There is an element of risk in any investment, and that’s true whether we put money into buying something we need or want today or save it for the future.

I believe Albany’s decision to form an urban renewal district nearly 15 years ago has produced visible results that a short walk through our downtown will verify. More importantly, the Central Albany Revitalization Area (CARA) has already produced significant economic benefits with the promise of more to come.

Why Do Good Things Take So Long While Bad Things Happen Overnight?

Years ago, I realized that good things always seem to take a long time to happen, while bad things can happen instantly. Buildings that take years to plan, finance, and construct can burn down in a few hours or crumble during an earthquake. I think the principle holds true in both our personal and professional lives.

Shortly after I arrived in Albany, I remember being approached by a mother who wanted her children to walk to school but was concerned about the lack of sidewalks on Gibson Hill Road. She was positive, energetic, and willing to invest her time to help make the project happen. The mom even organized other parents to bring their children to a council meeting to illustrate their support for the sidewalks. The Council was sympathetic and directed staff to look for funding to build the sidewalk; and, eventually, we secured a grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation for that purpose. I recently drove over to North Albany to check on the progress of the project, and I’m happy to say it is progressing nicely. My only regret is that the mother who can claim credit for starting this project moved to Corvallis several years ago.

Perhaps it should be quicker and easier to build needed projects in the community, but there are good reasons why they often take awhile to complete. I’m reasonably confident that most property owners in the Gibson Hill area had no desire to be assessed more than $1 million to build sidewalks. Albany has many more street improvement needs than we do resources to meet them, so it usually takes time to either accumulate or find dollars to do major projects. I think the Gibson Hill sidewalk project will have taken about nine years, start to finish. Compared to the time Albany has spent in securing the resources for a new downtown fire station after it recognized that one was needed about 20+ years ago, the Gibson Hill project happened very quickly.

Earlier this week, I read about a city manager colleague who was attending a city council meeting when one of the councilors made a motion to terminate his contract. The motion was seconded and approved by a council majority, and the manager was out of a job. He apparently received no notice and was asked to hand over his keys and remove his personal possessions from City Hall that night. Losing a job can happen to anyone, but I’m sure most of us would like to think we would receive a little notice. This city manager spent many years going to school, building a reputation, and accumulating experience only to have it wiped out in a single meeting.

I would like to think that the best reason why good things take so long is that they are well planned and thoroughly considered before they are carried out. Costs and benefits are weighed, priorities are determined, alternatives offered, and consensus achieved before settling on a given course. Processes are not always this thorough, and that may help explain why so many bad things happen quickly.