“Will the Boat Sink the Water?” is the title of a recent book describing Chinese peasants’ struggles against their bloated, over-reaching government. This intriguing title might also refer to our politicians’ cavalier attitude regarding revenue and spending issues. Over the past five years the federal spending has exceeded revenue, on average, by 125 percent. Much of the spending has gone to nonproductive rent seekers (for example Solyndra, Fisker, A123 Systems). This folly cannot and surely will not continue. The only question is which occurs first, the nation sinks in an ocean of debt or the irresponsible spending is stopped.
Even Bend has made some unfortunate spending choices. Consider the Bend Park & Recreation District’s recently passed $29 million bond issue, Measure 9-86. In approving this measure, the district’s voters mistakenly placed fun and games ahead of crucial infrastructure needs. Bend has an overdue sewer system upgrade pending ($174 million), an ongoing surface water project ($69 million) and an upcoming $96 million school bond for new schools and maintenance projects (an aside: using bond funds for deferred routine maintenance implies poor financial management). The 911 emergency service is asking for a levy extension. The fire department reports a funding shortfall.
The water and sewer infrastructure projects are obviously a top priority. These two systems are crucial for providing a safe and healthy environment for all Bend citizens. Every Bend resident, including the park enthusiasts, benefit from water and sewer systems in good working order. The park projects are not crucial, especially at a time when many of our citizens are experiencing financial distress due to unemployment, diminished retirement accounts, saving accounts earning near zero interest and continually increasing property taxes. Further, many recreational activities (hiking, fishing, golfing, skiing, OHV riding, etc.) are possible without park district supervision and their accompanying PERS overhead. The bottom line: Compared to Bend’s more pressing demands, the park district’s projects are simply not justified.
Equally worrisome is the fact that the park district board may have exceeded its legal authority with this bond measure. Oregon Revised Statutes defines park and recreation districts as public corporations (Chapter 266, section 410) with jurisdictional powers and duties limited to just four items: lakes, parks, recreation grounds and buildings.
Measure 9-86 outlined projects that include river realignment, road works, fish and wildlife protection and a utility installation for a university. By no stretch of the imagination do these projects fall within the district’s designated powers and duties. Nor does economic opportunity, habitat protection and health and wellness, each a vague goal espoused by the district’s board in support of the ballot measure. The district could continue its normal activities using its system development fees and property tax allocation, which incidentally, increased by 3.75 percent this year. The bond measure diverted funds needed for crucial infrastructure projects to frivolous and questionable uses.
Why is this funding choice a serious problem? Because of this: Segments of the city sewer system are old, with cracked pipes that can leak fecal matter into the water table under the city. This is the same aquifer from which our wells draw drinking water. It is imperative that the sewer system be upgraded to ensure that our well water remains pure. Diverting scarce resources from the needed sewer system upgrade to the parks was a serious blunder.
The park district board is working at cross-purposes with the city administration. Their revenue is excessive; it exceeds 50 percent of property tax revenue allocated to the city, but offers only a fraction of the vital services the city does. It is time to assess whether our park and recreation activities are best provided by the district or as a department within the city administration. Given the park board’s recent decisions, one can only conclude that our park and recreation function is most effectively and efficiently handled by the city.