Bend mayoral candidates showcased their differences on tourism spending, Mirror Pond dredging and the potential return of a gas tax during a debate Monday.
Bend City Councilors Sally Russell and Bill Moseley, attorney and hemp farmer Michael Hughes, disability advocate Brian Douglass and security guard Charles Baer met at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters. A sixth candidate, freelance photographer Joshua Langlais, missed the debate because he was photographing a wedding in Maine.
Visit Bend, which has a contract with the city to market Bend to tourists, has a budget of roughly $3 million a year — about one-third of the city’s revenue from its 10.4 percent hotel tax. The city tried last year to shift some of its tourism budget to road improvements, was promptly sued by the state’s hotel lobby and is now appealing a Deschutes County Circuit Court judge’s decision.
Despite that court decision, Baer said he thought Visit Bend’s budget should be cut in half.
“I don’t think we need to advertise Bend,” he said.
Douglass also said he thought more of the city’s hotel tax should be in the city’s general fund. He said he would lobby the Legislature to change the state law that requires cities to dedicate a portion of hotel tax to tourism.
Moseley said the city could legally spend the money it now spends on tourism marketing on a performing arts center, and he showed the audience a picture of a center in Banff, Alberta, that he said could serve as a model. A city law requires that the tourism portion be spent on marketing, but that law can easily be changed, he said.
“It takes two meetings to change a city ordinance,” he said. “It takes about 30 days if the City Council had the will to do so.”
The city could change its ordinance and create a performing arts center, Russell said, but that could take the entire marketing budget. Tourism provides resiliency during economic downturns, she said.
Hughes said the city should look at how much revenue the $3 million Visit Bend spends each year generates in revenue for the area. He said he suspects tourists spend a lot more in the area than the city spends on marketing to them — according to a 2015 report from Visit Bend, tourists spend about $500 million per year in Deschutes County.
“I’m somebody who appreciates the tourists, and I know there’s a lot of towns in these great United States that would appreciate the tourism Bend has,” Hughes said. “… I’m not sure people in Dubuque, Iowa, know about Bend, and maybe they should.”
Mirror Pond dredging
A group of Bend City Councilors and members of the Bend Park & Recreation District board will meet this fall to discuss ways to pay the $6.7 million cost of removing decades of accumulated silt from Mirror Pond, the part of the Deschutes River that flows through Drake Park adjacent to downtown Bend. The candidates debating Monday disagreed on whether the pond should be dredged at all and whether the city should contribute any money to it.
“As a City Council, we have to own the fact that it is going to be dredged,” Russell said.
But she said the city needs to be careful about how it spends its limited dollars. Any city funds should be matched by the park district, she said.
Hughes said he was open to the city paying some of the cost of dredging, but the city should pay no more than 15 percent of the cost.
Bend should be using its money to address the city’s transportation problems, Moseley said, adding that it’s the park district’s responsibility to provide parks. Douglass said the city should not spend any public money on dredging, but it could consider a local improvement district so homeowners in the area could pay for the project. According to a city analysis, dredging isn’t a legal use of a local improvement district.
Baer said he has three plans for Mirror Pond: First, leave the pond alone and let it become a marsh. If that doesn’t work, he said the city needs to blow up the Pacific Power dam that created the pond. If people aren’t happy with changes to the river that result from blowing up the dam, he said Mirror Pond could be dredged but that dredging should only happen during the winter.
Return of a gas tax
Bend voters overwhelmingly voted down a proposed gas tax in 2016. On Monday, the candidates discussed whether they’d support a new attempt at the gas tax.
Hughes said he voted against the last gas tax and will probably vote against next one. Instead, he said, the city could use a portion of its cannabis tax to pay for road maintenance — a program of pot for potholes.
“I view the gas tax as something that disproportionately affects lower-income people and people on a fixed income,” he said.
Baer said he’ll support a 5-cent to 10-cent gas tax to pay for road maintenance.
“I would definitely support the tax,” he said. “Roads are great and we need to keep them great.”
Russell said she’s listening to Bend’s citywide transportation advisory committee, which is considering suggestions including a gas tax. Spending on road maintenance during the most recent budget mostly came from one-time funds, and Bend doesn’t have consistent funding for road maintenance, she said.
Moseley said the city “poisoned the well” with its last gas tax attempt and the community is jaded about a tax. One argument for it would be that a gas tax requires tourists who don’t pay Bend’s property tax to contribute, he said.
Douglass, also, said he was skeptical of attempts to pass a new gas tax because the last one was put together in a really poor way. Instead, he said he wanted to see a $100 million bond to build sidewalks, pave gravel residential roads and improve curb ramps.
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