by Dave Berg
“The best way out of a difficulty is through it.” – Will Rogers
A couple of years ago I wrote an article saying that budgets mean choices and the easiest choice is “doing nothing”. Many communities in Oregon no longer have this option after the impact of years of “tax & spend” policies. Why? These policies have eroded their reserve of general fund revenues. They have often used “urban renewal” to promote special interest projects, only to see funding for core city services like police, fire, and streets stagnate. At the same time the cost for providing these critical core services escalated and cities had limited general fund monies to pay for them.
The long term “tax & spend” direction of many communities has put them in a difficult situation. I know because for many years now I have fought the predominant “tax & spend” mentality. I have seen it waste millions that should have gone to core community services. Not only were many efforts urban renewal related, but many were also “visionary” projects that went nowhere with a limited chance at success. Why? They required enormous amounts of public debt for a questionable benefit. Proponents of “tax & spend” often told the public that “now is the best time to take on debt since interest rates are the lowest they have ever been”. I often shuddered at this “spin” because they often left out that this debt has to be paid, even when those projects don’t produce their claimed benefits.
When voters have been reluctant to approve general obligation (GO) debt we have seen these officials try to raise rates, fees, and start new urban renewal districts (URD) to finance their latest “vision”. In Clackamas county voters rejected this attempt with several ballot initiatives preventing fee increases and new urban renewal districts without a public vote. Still some elected officials are doing all they can to get around these limitations and continue their spending. It’s a sad example of governance.
However citizens can make a difference. Oregon law (ORS 294) requires local budget committees to provide input into the budgeting process. The intent and purpose of the law is for citizens to provide input and oversight of their elected officials. Unfortunately many of these committees can be co-opted or manipulated to reduce oversight. I know as I have seen it first hand and challenged elected officials quite publicly.
Still, while budget committees only “recommend” a budget they do approve the local property tax rate and other areas. This gives citizens a powerful voice into preserving their community character. When a city council or board overrides their budget committee recommendation, it sends a strong message that elected officials don’t agree with the citizens. Voters recognize this and elected officials who go against their budget committee tend not to be re-elected.
I would encourage all citizens to become involved in the budget process for their community. Doing so allows voters to be much more informed about the priorities of their elected officials. Just “follow the money” and you will know their real priorities. Are most of your funds going to public safety, roads, and core services? Are there a lot of urban renewal projects for the size of your community? What do most members of your community really want to see? Does the budget reflect this? Are citizen members of the budget committee standing up for the community or just “rubber stamping” the proposed budget. What you observe during the budget process will tell you more about how your community is being managed than any other source of information. It will also tell you if your elected officials are “walking the talk” or just “shooting sunshine” in the community.
What comes first, “nice to have” or core services? That’s the key decision facing many communities as we try to preserve community character and wrestle with the long term impact of the “tax & spend” political philosophy. This is why it’s so important citizens provide their input into the budget process and hold their elected officials accountable. It’s provides an ideal vehicle for ensuring “good governance” in every community in Oregon.
Dave Berg is a 23-year resident of Lake Oswego a board member of COLA LO, Chair of the Lake Oswego Budget Committee, and Co-Chair of the Legislative Committee of the Clackamas County Republican Party.