Mirror Pond stakeholders agreed Friday that a fish ladder could ease environmentalists’ concerns about removing silt from the pond — but they don’t know how to pay for the fish-friendly structure, or the roughly $6.7 million cost of dredging.
Representatives from the city of Bend, the Bend Parks & Recreation District and Mirror Pond Solutions met Friday for the first of several planned discussions, by the end of which the group hopes to have recommendations to bring back to the Bend City Council and park district board on how to pay for the dredging project. Mirror Pond Solutions has been seeking contributions from the city, park district and Pacific Power and Light for more than a year, but none of the other entities have been eager to open their pockets.
It isn’t clear whether Bend residents want the pond dredged, said city Councilor Bill Moseley, who led the meeting. Moseley said he’s heard 60 percent of residents favor keeping the pond, but 60 percent of residents also favor having a free-flowing river in its place.
“From the public, I hear a real mix of community values,” Moseley said.
Indecision on the part of the two governments has caused private contributions to the dredging project to stall, said Todd Taylor, owner of Taylor Northwest Construction company and co-founder of Mirror Pond Solutions. Taylor and Old Mill District developer Bill Smith have raised a little more than $300,000 for dredging. Taylor said he believes there’s a community consensus that dredging is the right thing to do, even if elected officials aren’t sure.
“We want to be managing with confidence that there is support to do this,” he said. “We feel there is or we wouldn’t be here today. It’s hard to go out and do public fundraising when you don’t have the other pieces connected.”
The Bend City Council is most interested in four funding options: seeking more private donations, having the city and park district contribute money from their general funds, instituting a park user fee and charging Pacific Power, which owns the dam that formed Mirror Pond, a franchise fee that would be passed down to ratepayers,
Brady Fuller, chairman of the park district board, said the park district can’t make a “significant” general fund contribution because its money is tied up in its own projects. The district has an $84.3 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The park district nixed the idea of charging people to float the Deschutes River. Don Horton, the district’s executive director, said such a fee would be difficult to enforce. If the district charged people entering the river at Farewell Bend Park, for instance, they might choose to get in upstream, he said.
Charging a fee could result in the district losing its recreational immunity, a legal concept that protects landowners, like park districts, from being sued if people get injured while using their land for free. Horton said there have been three drownings in the Deschutes River during his time at the district, and he wouldn’t want the district to put itself at risk of a lawsuit.
Park board members generally supported the idea of a franchise fee, but City Attorney Mary Winters said that’s a method the city would have to be careful in implementing. While cities generally have the authority to raise franchise fees, they have to be careful about keeping those as fees, rather than taxes, she said.
“Sometimes, we get concerned when we hear very specific discussions about a dedicated fund for dredging Mirror Pond,” Winters said. “While council can raise franchise fees, I would caution you about dedicating that to pay for something specific.”
She said a model the power company proposed, which would increase its franchise fee from 5 percent to 6.25 percent for nine years, then drop to 5.25 percent, also isn’t likely. If the city hikes franchise fees, it’s not likely to drop them.
Moseley said he’s uncomfortable with dedicating franchise fees to a project like dredging Mirror Pond when those fees are a reliable source of funding for infrastructure improvements.
While the committee didn’t come any closer to agreement on how to pay for the project, it did lean toward adding about $2 million to its cost by considering a fish ladder.
Craig Lacy, a Bend resident and self-described wild fish advocate who lives along Mirror Pond, said he wanted to see any plan for dredging include a way to allow fish to move through the river. Fish can’t get past the dam and are isolated, leading to more inbreeding and less genetic fitness, he said.
Horton said improving fish passage could be a way to get more support from the environmental community, which generally favors returning the river to a more natural state.
Nathan Hovekamp, a park board member who works as the wildlife program director at environmental nonprofit Central Oregon LandWatch, said a goal of any project in Mirror Pond should be to get something resembling a more natural river. Safe fish passage is part of that, he said.
“The river is a party to these discussions,” he said. “I just would like to see some wins for the river as one of the key values.”
The committee will meet Nov. 29 at 3 p.m. at City Hall. It expects to have more information about a fish ladder.
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