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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 12.31.2008

 

New Year’s Resolutions

Setting an agenda for a better Eugene and Lane County

With new progressive majorities being sworn in this month at the Eugene City Council, Lane County Board of Commissioners and Eugene Water and Electric Board, and a new president and Congress promising funding for green infrastructure, the new year represents a chance for positive big change.

But that won’t happen without leadership. In the past, we’ve seen a progressive majority on the City Council mill about and take direction from city staff without delivering a popular change agenda with methodical determination. How much time was wasted on pointless meetings for a new City Hall building? That’s not a recipe for progress or re-election.

So here’s our editorial on a to-do list for local government. We’ve checked it twice. It’s nice and doable; it’s green and creates gobs of jobs.  If just half the things get done, it will be a vast improvement for the people. Clear the crud and start setting the meeting agendas for a happier new year.

 

Create Real Jobs

With the recession as an excuse, conservatives are rushing to give bigger tax breaks and subsidies and weakened regulations to developers, land speculators and corp-orations. But that will create more profits for special interests at the expense of taxpayers and other sustainable businesses than actual jobs. 

A far better approach is to increase tax revenues from the hoarding rich and corporations and stimulate the economy with much needed social, education, environmental and transit programs — creating real jobs while increasing the greater good and attracting tourists and new businesses. Many of these job-creating programs are listed in this article.

 

Reform Taxes

Barack Obama won overwhelmingly in Eugene and Lane County after calling for tax increases on the rich and tax breaks and programs for the poor and middle class. 

The city and county should pass income taxes on the rich. If the county imposed a 10 percent surcharge on state income taxes only for those making more than $250,000 a year, the tax would generate about $11 million per year. 

The city of Eugene could also do an Obama-style tax on the rich. A surcharge on state income taxes for those earning more than $100,000 a year (beginning at 2 percent and increasing to 4 percent for incomes more than $500,000) would generate roughly $5 million per year, according to city tax studies. 

The millions in new city and county revenue could be used on focused property tax breaks for the poor who are struggling in the recession. In Oregon, property taxes hit the poor about three times harder than the rich, according to studies of taxes as a percent of income by the Center for Tax Justice (CTJ).

The city and county could also spend some or all of the money on crime prevention, the homeless, acquiring park land and/or transit systems.

Besides a personal income tax, another approach could increase taxes on corporations, most of which are headquartered elsewhere. According to Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCPP), Oregon corporations now pay less than half the relative taxes that they paid three decades ago.

 

Cut Tax Breaks

The enterprise zone and multiple unit housing (MUPTE) tax breaks should be canceled or at least scaled dramatically back. Untold scores of millions of dollars have gone into enterprise zone tax breaks with little or nothing to show for it. Hynix and Sony closed soon after their breaks expired and left the community with little but longer lines at the food bank and unemployment office. Most economists agree that such tax breaks don’t create jobs but merely give away taxpayer money for business location decisions that would have been made anyway. Local MUPTE breaks have gone largely to developers of overpriced student housing that would have been built anyway. The tax breaks make little rational sense and undermine faith and support in local government. Why should we pay our taxes if that corporation or developer doesn’t?

If the breaks can’t be ended, they should be scaled back. The city should resurrect the per-job cap on enterprise zone tax breaks that the previous, pro-corporate county commission blocked. The MUPTE program should be strictly limited to only development in the struggling downtown core and then only with an affordable housing component. 

The city’s urban renewal districts should also be reined in sharply. This program has diverted desperately needed money for schools and city services into parking garages and subsidies for developers. Urban renewal should be strictly limited to public projects such as the library and parks that clearly benefit the public, not “public-private partnerships” where the public gets all the costs while the private company gets all the profits. With budget cuts looming, the city and county can’t afford to keep giving money away to corporations and developers for

nothing.

 

Get Stimulated

With local Congressman Peter DeFazio head of a key House transportation committee, Eugene is well positioned to tap into the billions in Obama stimulus. The money could fund a quick expansion of BRT on West 11th, a Willamette Street trolley, restoration of the millrace or downtown, added Mount Pisgah park land, bike trails, high speed rail and a host of other green projects. Eugene and Lane County need to get their lists of green stimulus projects together quickly and think big.

 

Cut the Real Fat

Conservatives and city staff will want to cut popular programs that directly benefit citizens first. But there’s plenty of fat elsewhere. Does the city really need five PR people? Why does the city pay the Lane Metro Partnership to lobby the city for more corporate tax breaks? Eliminating pesticides and reducing mowing in parks could save a bundle. Cut the travel budget for the executive staff. Does the manager really need a car allowance? How about a bus pass and a bike allowance? How much is the city spending on consultants? On LCOG? Is the work really needed, and can it be done in-house more cheaply?

The police budget is out of control. Why does the department need two PR people? How much does the propaganda-laden, 14-week Citizens’ Police Academy cost? How much time do police officers spend in meetings? Cut overtime and trim the lard out of the police union contract. 

If Eugene isn’t going to build a new City Hall, why do departments keep having to pay into the facility reserve? The $30 million reserve slush fund could be used to renovate the existing City Hall, as a rainy day fund to cover falling revenues and for parks, green transportation and homeless projects. 

 

Reform City Government

Eugene could save a bundle of money and avoid potential conflicts of interest by hiring an in-house city attorney. Eugene is the only city of its size or larger in the nation that contracts all its legal work to a private firm.

An independent performance auditor could save the city millions of dollars in increased efficiency and reduced waste. Portland and many other cities have enjoyed the benefits. It’s about time Eugene did as well.

To control costs and put elected officials actually in charge of city government, the City Council should have approval authority over all large city contracts. Most local elected officials, including tiny fire districts, have this democratic power, Eugene should, too.

 

Reform Campaign Finance

The half million dollars Jim Torrey spent for his mayor’s campaign is absurd. Local government should be owned by the voters, not big campaign donors investing to profit at public expense. The city and county need publicly financed elections like those successfully operating in Portland and other cities and states. 

 

Fight Global Warming

It’s time to get real about global warming. With the region on hydropower, almost all of the local global warming pollution comes from driving. Big freeway projects like the I-5 Beltline interchange only promote more and more driving. Instead, the city should focus on public transit like a bus line to the airport, a BRT line out west 11th, a BRT line on Coburg Road and an historic street car running down Willamette Street.

To help promote compact development and raise revenue for green transportation, the city should increase system develop-ment charges for sprawl so such projects are no longer subsidized and establish a per-space tax on surface parking lots.

The city and county should rewrite the local transportation plan (TransPlan) to actually meet or exceed state goals for reducing vehicle miles traveled rather than evading the reductions with meaningless nodal development designations and other gimmicks.  

The city and county should also make funds for a Cascadia high speed rail connection between Eugene and Vancouver, B.C. a top lobbying priority. Imagine, Eugene to Portland in 30 minutes. The rail line would provide a huge economic boom for the city, not to mention lots of construction jobs.

The city and county should also redouble efforts to ban field burning. The smoke not only contributes to global warming, but it chokes locals and frightens new businesses and tourists away.  

It’s time to ban Styrofoam restaurant and grocery store take-out containers. Styrofoam ends up in the landfill while recyclable containers are a cheap alter-native. Eugene is at least a dozen years behind other Oregon cities in banning Styrofoam. 

 

Boost Biking and Walking

Eugene should join Portland in becoming a leader in increasing bike commuting to fight global warming, increase livability and reduce obesity. The city needs to take real actions to get this done by removing car parking and car lanes to make room for more bike lanes. The city should make 12th into a real bike boulevard with “Do Not Enter” signs for through cars and removed stop signs for bikes. A law allowing cyclists to yield at stop signs rather than stop would also help. The cops could instead focus on a major crackdown on the city’s embarrassingly high number of bike thefts. 

The city should remove a traffic lane, parking and/or re-stripe on High Street to create a north-south separated bike path linking the Amazon trail to the riverfront bike trails. The dangerous eyesore of South Willamette Street should be rebuilt with two lanes and a center turn lane. That would make room for bike lanes, trees, wider sidewalks and street trees. 

The city and county should also lobby for federal funds to make the abandoned rail line to the coast a rails-to-trails project. The spectacular rail line, crossing mountains, estuaries and lakes, would be a world-class tourist attraction.  

As for walking, the city needs to prioritize pedestrians over cars. A major sidewalk and crosswalk building program would provide a great stimulus for the economy while reducing global warming and obesity and increasing safety and livability.

 

Stop Sprawl

The region’s urban growth boundary saved the area from a worse housing speculation bubble and should be held tight. There is no need for more land in this sprawling metropolis. Developers are desperate to sell the overbuilt inventory they have now, and land and spec homes are going begging. A big box store on the edge of town does not create jobs. It merely takes them from centrally located local businesses. Inefficient sprawl costs far more in increased taxes for infrastructure and services, wasted commuting and lost livability than it creates in economic activity. If there’s a need for more industrial and/or residential and commercial land, there are vast tracts of centrally located underused rail yards, warehouses, empty chip plants, parking lots and pits just waiting to be redeveloped.

 

Prevent Crime 

Jails cost more than $100,000 a bed to build and $30,000 a year per bed to operate. Eugene has a falling crime rate and is one of the safest cities in the nation. But local law enforcement officials still say we need more than 1,000 additional jail beds. That’s absurd. Payments on $100 million in construction bonds plus $30 million a year in operating costs would bankrupt local taxpayers with an unnecessary waste.

A much cheaper approach would be through a sensible, far more economical and humane investment in crime prevention. Numerous studies show crime prevention programs such as Healthy Start, turn-around schools, early intervention for high-risk youth, outreach and shelter programs for homeless youth and drug, mental health and alcohol treatment can cost only a few thousand dollars per enrollee while saving millions in police and incarceration costs. The county and city should focus their current revenue and any tax increase proposals on crime prevention.

The city and county should also end the absurdity of the city’s jail contract with the county. Under the contract, the city pays the county to hold someone for a misdemeanor crime while the county releases a far more damaging felon because of supposed overcrowding.





Help the Homeless

Times are tough, and the city and county need to step up to help with basic needs. Money from income taxes on the wealthy and corporate profits could provide a much needed homeless shelter and/or increase in spending on low-income housing. Local money could help leverage five times more federal funding or more if Obama includes low-income housing as part of his stimulus. The construction boom for affordable homes could also provide a big local economic boost. Money would be saved on arresting the homeless and housing them at the jail.

 

Boost Schools

Eugene’s classrooms are crowded and likely to get more so with cuts in state funding. The city should use money from a new income tax on the wealthy and corporations to directly subsidize smaller class sizes. An earlier property tax to help schools ran afoul of Measure 5. But an income/and or corporate tax for schools would have no such legal issue. Better schools will provide more teaching jobs and stimulate the economy with a better-educated workforce and by attracting businesses to move to the area.

The UO and LCC should also be subsidized, lobbied for and grown as powerful local economic engines. Not only do they train workers and entrepreneurs for the local economy, but they also provide a big chunk of the best, greenest local jobs. The industry is counter-cyclical with more people returning to school when the economy is down. Students bring money that they pour into the local economy. They should be at the top of the local economic development agenda.

 

Fix Downtown

Getting a big out-of-town developer to remake downtown with a mega-mall style chain store development isn’t going to happen. Eugene voters won’t support the tax breaks and parking garage subsidies, and the big developers can’t get financing now anyway. A better approach would be to focus on helping existing local businesses thrive downtown. 

Restoring the old Farmers’ Market building with doors opening out onto a new park in the pit across from the library would be a big draw for downtown. A year-round Farmers’ Market building could also be built on the butterfly lot site where the Farmers’ Market originally began. Finding a way to attract a first-run movie theater downtown using existing parking garages at off hours would also be a big boon for downtown.

Rather than handing the taxpayer money over to developer profits, the city could build its own public buildings downtown. A teen center, indoor aquatic center, and/or green science museum are some ideas.

 

Build Parks

To attract people to live, work, play and shop downtown, the city needs parks. Conservatives say parks only attract street people, but that’s an ugly, mean-spirited, self-defeating vision of a barbed wire Eugene. Great, livable cities are built around great parks.

If WG doesn’t quickly commit to building in the library pit and Opus won’t quickly commit to build student housing, the city should immediately build a park. Letting the ugly site sit and fester downtown for another decade, which now appears too likely, is not an option. A park across from the library could include a fountain, grass, trees, performance stage and even underground parking. 

Eugene and Lane County should also tear down the county’s ugly butterfly parking garage downtown to expand the historic Park Blocks. This may be a good site for a downtown sculpture park featuring the whimsical and thought-provoking works of local world-class artists, a major tourist draw.

In the current economy, EWEB’s riverfront land is also in danger of becoming another vacant eyesore for decades. Instead, EWEB and the city should collaborate on a large scenic riverfront park with a restored millrace. There’s plenty of room for commercial development set well back from the river near the railroad tracks or federal courthouse. The big park will only enhance this property’s value.

The park should extend up the river to include the UO’s Riverfront Research Park land north of the railroad tracks. The city and UO have wasted more than $13 million on the research park and more than a decade with no created jobs to show for it. The land would much better serve the community and the UO as playing fields and natural areas.

Now is also the time to look for values and opportunities in parkland in outlying areas. The county should use the down housing market and federal stimulus money to snatch up the Wildish land to add to Mount Pisgah. 

 

Get Artsy

Local art could provide Eugene and its downtown a major attraction. What about haiku on the sides of LTD buses, a key passage of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion inscribed on a sidewalk and/or a down-town art museum? The city could nurture local art with grants for an official city poet and/or artist every year. 

Let’s ban the pretentious slogan, “World’s Greatest City for the Arts and Outdoors,” coined by a departed bureaucrat who had apparently never been to Vienna,  Vancouver, B.C., or even Cannon Beach. Creative Eugene can do much better. Eugene’s living hippie history is an asset, not an embarrassment. Celebrating the hippie could provide for a major marketing brand that would attract creative people and tourists to boost the local economy. What about a Museum of the American Hippie for this tie-dyed town?  

 And let’s work to save and preserve the few buildings left in Eugene that have historical, cultural or artistic significance. Civic Stadium will be abandoned by the Ems at some point, but this remarkable old wooden stadium and its fields would be great for soccer games, high school baseball, concerts or for some community use as yet to be determined. A sharp committee has taken on this project. Let’s support Save Civic Stadium in 2009.