How Portland is losing its way

By Dave Lister

The framers of Portland’s city charter had a pretty clear idea of what the city was supposed to do. They wanted it to provide police, fire, sewer and water services as well as streets and parks. They needed to provide those services in order for Portland to continue to be, as Massachusetts newspaper editor Samuel Bowles wrote in the early 1870s, a city that “has the air and fact of a prosperous, energetic town with a good deal of eastern leadership and tone to business and society and morals.”

Unfortunately, the framers were less clear on what the City Council shouldn’t do, and for decades city leaders have focused on social engineering, planning and transit trinkets rather than their core responsibilities.

With one dissenting vote, the Portland City Council will in November ask voters to approve a $72 million bond measure to build a new fire station and acquire new fire vehicles and communications equipment. The council wants us to agree to increase our property taxes to fund a city service that has been a core responsibility of the city since its founding. At the same time, Mayor Sam Adams and city planners are busily spinning new tax-diverting urban renewal schemes to, once again, declare portions of downtown blighted and in need of redevelopment. That means fewer dollars for the core services, more dollars for the chosen developers.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the “no” vote on the bond measure, gave me the following explanation:

“Equipment ensuring public safety is among the most basic services for a city to provide to its residents, workers and visitors. Most of the general fund was spent on public safety, and I believe progress was made in ranking importance of services in the 2010 budget process. I take responsibility for my share in the fact that, evidently, true prioritization was not achieved, and I will ask even more probing questions in the budget negotiations next year.”

My last property tax statement shows that 11 percent went to city of Portland urban renewal. Of the city’s share of my taxes, the urban renewal portion was more than one-third. With a third of our money funding 40 years of continuous, subsidized redevelopment, it’s no wonder that core services are coming up short.

This mission-creep madness is not unique to Portland. Despite an over $500 million budget hole for funding education and its other core services, the state of Oregon plans to pump nearly half that amount into a light-rail line from Portland to Milwaukie, while a vital piece of infrastructure, the Sellwood Bridge, continues to crumble. The new rail line, already estimated at $1.5 billion and still in the planning stages, will bisect inner Southeast Portland, displacing dozens of businesses and hundreds of good jobs. It also will likely be the most expensive yet because of the need to create new right-of-ways by condemning and buying private property.

Sitting on my patio, scratching my mosquito bites and wondering if creating wetlands in parking lots is really such a great idea, I consider Bowles’ words and what he’d think if he were alive to visit Portland today. After decades of elected officials who equate leadership with building things, we’re basically broke. With an unemployment rate pushing 11 percent, we’re not prosperous. With transit projects displacing long-established companies, we no longer have a tone for business. With our mentally ill wandering the streets and our schools failing miserably by any measure, we aren’t doing our duty for our society. As far as morality is concerned, I’ll let others judge. But I think Samuel Bowles would be gravely disappointed.