Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

The city of Bend plans to pay a consulting firm for public relations and research for a possible $100 million transportation bond measure the city plans to send to voters in 2020.

The Bend City Council is expected to approve the $108,000 contract with Barney & Worth Inc., a firm with offices in Bend and Portland, during Wednesday night’s council meeting. Provided the council approves the contract, the firm will start researching what transportation projects voters are willing to pay for in late April, said Susanna Julber, a senior project and policy analyst with the city.

“In order for us to figure out the types of projects and the funding to match those projects that voters would most likely support, we need a little bit of help,” she said.

A citywide committee has spent the past year developing a plan for Bend’s transportation needs during the next 20 years, and its working list has more than 100 projects that are estimated to cost more than $400 million to build. Bend residents will be asked to pay for at least some of those projects through their property taxes via a bond measure planned for the May 2020 ballot.

Members of the committee that focused on funding the projects described a $100 million bond as a reasonable starting point but said they needed more research to decide the amount of the bond.

Barney & Worth will do outreach and polling to narrow down which projects people will pay for during the next five to 15 years, Julber said. Some potential projects, such as extending Wilson Avenue east past 15th Street, could be controversial.

The firm will develop a public relations campaign for the bond measure and test which packages of projects play well with voters. It will recommend whether the city should wait to hold the election until November instead of in May, as well, Julber said.

“They’ll help us basically form that voter strategy moving forward,” she said

Barney & Worth was chosen for the contract over another contender, Hubbell Communications, in part because Hubbell’s Bend director, Erin Foote Morgan, worked on Bend’s unsuccessful gas tax measure a few years ago.

During a July 2015 meeting, Foote Morgan, then executive director of Bend 2030, told the City Council a gas tax had a better chance of passing in an off-year rather than in the May 2016 primary, according to archival video. The crowded Republican presidential primary would bring out more conservative voters, while more Democrats would vote in fall 2015, she said.

The majority of the City Council voted to schedule the 5-cent gas tax election during a March 2016 special election, costing the city about $70,000 more than it would have had Bend waited until the May primary.

The tax failed by a 2-to-1 margin.

Some city leaders said the timing of the vote contributed to its failure, characterizing the council’s choice to pay for an election while telling voters Bend was too broke to fix its roads as disingenuous.

Another challenge with the 2016 gas tax vote was that neither the committee that recommended the tax nor the council unanimously agreed on it, City Manager Eric King said. The city’s been successful in asking voters for money in instances when the entire council agreed, such as a 2015 hotel tax increase and a 2011 transportation bond, he said.

“Even having one or two council members who are not supportive of an ask can really drive a wedge in the community,” King said.

Councilor Justin Livingston, who in 2015 was on the gas tax committee and opposed the tax, said he was nervous about having a consultant come up with suggestions for how to succeed in passing a bond measure.

“When we talk about strategies for success, that bit us in the butt last time,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com