Bend council empty

Bend Mayor Sally Russell talks with fellow members of the council over the phone during a city council meeting on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The council voted to remove a $190 million transportation bond from the May ballot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In an eerie, nearly empty City Hall, the Bend City Council voted to pull a $190 million transportation bond off the May ballot in light of economic instability brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous vote was made by councilors calling in because all of them felt a need to respect social distance given the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayor Sally Russell was the only council member there.

“This is a really difficult decision,” Russell said. “But sitting here tonight, even by what this dais looks like, you can see our circumstances in Bend has changed dramatically since council decided to put the bond on the May ballot.”

Many city councilors said their reason for wanting to postpone the bond was because they felt it was an inappropriate time to ask taxpayers for money.

Uncertainty related to the coronavirus sent U.S. markets into a tailspin Wednesday.

A directive from Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday closed all dine-in options for restaurants and prohibited gatherings of more than 25 people to prevent the spread of the virus. The mandate shuttered businesses and events around the state, and prompted layoffs that triggered a surge of unemployment claims statewide.

The bond, if passed, would cost the average homeowner about $170 more a year in property taxes.

“I think a lot of people who are looking at that (tax increase) will go, ‘I don’t know, maybe not,’” Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell said.

The recommendation to pull the bond from the ballot was suggested Tuesday by the leaders of the GoBend 2020 Coalition, the political action committee charged with promoting the bond.

Mike Riley, a co-chair of the coalition, said the local economic impacts from the pandemic and a Thursday deadline from the election’s office to decide whether to pull the bond, shaped the recommendation.

The goal is to put the bond package — which includes dozens of projects aimed at easing traffic congestion, improving safety and connecting east and west Bend — on a future ballot, possibly as early as November.

“All the folks involved still feel very strongly that these investments are needed for overall life and livability,” Riley said Wednesday. “(Transportation issues) are not going to go away, and we’re ready to step back in when it’s the right time.”

The City Council also chose to postpone the bond because of volatility in the municipal bond market. Due to economic upheaval, investors are less likely to buy the kind of bonds that make up something like the transportation bond, because they cannot be sold quickly and turned around for a profit, said Sharon Wodja, the city’s chief financial officer.

“It’s unprecedented...it’s a new era, and that’s where a lot of volatility comes in,” Wodja said.

City Councilor Barb Campbell understands the need to postpone the bond, but also sees it, and the projects within it, as a possible catalyst for jobs that could reinvigorate the local economy.

But Damon Runberg, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, said local spending doesn’t equate to economic stimulus.

“The concept behind a stimulus is that government spending can ‘grease the wheels’ or ‘prime the pump’ by boosting demand for particular goods or services,” Runberg said in an email. “Traditionally the government does this through taking on debt. It wouldn’t really be a stimulus if you increased spending, but also increased taxes.”

But the councilors agreed transportation improvements remain a priority in Bend, and this bond is the way to do it.

“I don’t want our city to take a step back. We’ve been doing so many Band-Aids for transportation,” Councilor Chris Piper said. “It’s still on the front burner. But let’s say we are putting the heat back down to medium.”

Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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