Counting trips to the public trough

Leadership Bend charts tax burden

By Hillary Borrud / The Bulletin

The economic recovery has been slow in Bend. Partially completed subdivisions languish. The Deschutes County unemployment rate in September was 11.1 percent. And yet, there is no shortage of funding requests to taxpayers from the city, park district and schools.

In May 2011, Bend voters approved a $30 million bond to pay for street improvements. The city has increased water rates for several years to pay for a planned $68 million water project, and officials are considering whether to spend as much as $170 million on sewer work. The Bend Park & Recreation District is asking voters today to approve a $29 million bond; in May, Bend-La Pine Schools will ask voters to approve a $98 million bond for school improvements and construction.

Lately, City Manager Eric King has been wondering how much more financially strapped taxpayers can handle. King has been talking with other local government officials about the need for more coordination of funding requests.

He said he thinks government agencies need to do more to schedule their tax measures according to community priorities and taxpayers' capacity to tolerate higher bills.

“Residents don't look at the system as all these different individual agencies,” King said. “I think they kind of look at it as government services at the local level, and I think they expect us to be more coordinated in our asks of them.”

The Bend Chamber has raised similar concerns.

“We're very concerned about the quality of life, and it has a direct correlation with the infrastructure, education and public safety,” said chamber Executive Director Tim Casey. “And we are concerned as voters start looking at all these different bonds, they will get into a position of rate tolerance where they will not want to pay any more ... We're concerned a lot of lower priority issues might get before voters before the higher priority ones.”

Several months ago, Casey approached former Deschutes County Sheriff Les Stiles about taking the Chamber's leadership class, Leadership Bend, in a new direction. Stiles' specific assignment to the 32 class members, a mix of high-level business people and government employees, is to graph all of the existing property tax rates as far as possible into the future, then determine the total rate charged to taxpayers each year as some of the bonds expire.

“At the time, there were rumors of a $98 million school bond,” as well as measures to create a new transit tax district and a permanent tax rate for the Deschutes County 911 Service District, Stiles said. “So the question begging to be asked is, 'Who's taking the 30,000-foot view?' At what point are we going to hit a tipping point for the voters ... ?”

Stiles emphasized that the Bend Chamber came up with the idea for the class project on its own. “This is not being sanctioned by any governmental entity at all,” he said. The nine-month leadership class began in September.

King said he was aware of the Leadership Bend project. King would like the class to recommend priorities and strategies, although it's unclear at this point whether it will do so.

Jenny Dietz, whose job at the Bend Chamber includes support for Leadership Bend, said the group plans to present its findings to elected officials and the public. The class goal is to present its findings in May 2013.

If governments do not coordinate, they could put forward bond measures that miss the big picture, King said. For example, voters might approve a bond measure to pay for construction of a new school when sewer capacity doesn't exist to serve it and no money is set aside to upgrade that capacity.

And the city must plan for its sewer and other infrastructure to serve private development, not just new government projects, King said. The city needs to have shovel-ready land around the city in order to attract new businesses. The city is also struggling to pay for police and fire services at the level residents expect.

For the moment, talks aimed at coordinated funding between King and other local government leaders — from the Deschutes Public Library District, Deschutes County, Bend-La Pine Schools, the Bend Park & Recreation District and Oregon State University-Cascades Campus — are informal, with no timeline to produce results. Casey and staff from the nonprofit Economic Development for Central Oregon also attend the meetings. These officials meet periodically; a few months ago, they agreed to revisit the funding issue after the Bend Chamber leadership class produces its report, King said.

“As a city, it's our responsibility to provide the infrastructure for a lot of these requests, and I just want to make sure we can do that ... We don't want to be seen as barriers to development.”

Some in the class said they should have started the analysis earlier so it would be done before the November election. The class started too close to the election to accomplish that, Stiles said, but he expects their findings will still spark an important conversation and potentially play a role in future bond measure decisions.

“Personally, I think Eric King's right and we're going to reach a tipping point,” Stiles said.