Eugene Weekly : News : 2.12.08

Police Raid Reserves
Manager defies voters to seek new cop shop
by Alan Pittman

Facing huge deficits from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the Eugene City Manager is pushing to blow most of the city’s reserve funds on a new police station that voters have rejected three times.

A majority of the City Council appeared poised to narrowly pass the rushed proposal at a Wednesday, Feb. 10, meeting as Eugene Weekly went to press.

Former Councilor Bonny Bettman, who originally proposed creating the reserve fund, said Ruiz’s political maneuver on the police station will outrage voters. “It’s going to get to the point where the city is like the county, and they won’t be able to pass a bond levy or measure because the people don’t trust them.”

Here are some of the burning issues in the hot police station debate:

• The will of the voters has been against the police station three times. In 2000 a bond measure including the police station failed twice by 7 percent and 23 percent margins. In 2004, a police station measure failed by a 20 percent margin. The council considered putting the police station on the ballot a fourth time last year, but backed away when polling indicated it would fail again.

To get around the voters, Ruiz this time has proposed that the city spend at least $16 million on the building from the city’s reserve account. Ironically, Ruiz is backed by council conservatives who complained loudly against defying the “will of the voters” in not building the West Eugene Parkway, which passed twice by narrow margins. 

• Voters have thrice rejected the seismic arguments the city has made for a new police station. City staff claim City Hall could collapse on police in the basement during an earthquake. But it’s highly unlikely police officers would be trapped under City Hall. Officers use the locker area mostly only for shift changes. Critics point out that basement police cars could be moved to a surface lot across the street and fenced for little cost. The city could also seismically retrofit the building to save police and everyone else in City Hall if there’s an earthquake, for just $2 million to $3 million, according to city staff and engineering studies.

• The city is facing a budget deficit of more than $10 million while Ruiz has called for spending most of the city’s $22 million reserve account on a new building. With the nation in deep recession, most cities are dedicating reserves, if they have them, to preserving services from budget cuts. Meanwhile, the city of Eugene could be laying off staff, cutting back on library hours, cutting park funding and eliminating and/or neglecting community policing, potholes and other services while spending millions on an unpopular new building.

Ruiz’s rushed move to approve the police station without a public hearing means the building won’t be weighed against other more popular city priorities in the tough budget cutting process that will start later this month. 

• Supporters argue that the construction will act as a “stimulus” to the economy during the recession. But due to the deficit, the city could be cutting jobs while spending its reserve. The city could also find quicker, more effective stimulus uses for the money such as road repair, loans to local businesses suffering from the credit crunch, and/or giving the money to 4J to preserve teacher jobs threatened by big cuts.

• Fear that moving the patrol officers out of City Hall could result in less oversight was a big part of previous police station defeats. Under Ruiz’s proposal, patrol officers would be separated from Internal Affairs and command staff who would remain in City Hall. The Roger Magaña sex abuse scandal  showed that the Rapid Deployment Unit the officer/rapist operated in outside City Hall suffered from poor supervision. The ability of investigators to easily check Magaña’s locker for evidence was also a key factor in catching him.

• The actual cost of the new police building may end up much higher than the $16 million Ruiz claims. The city recently asked the federal government for $24 million in stimulus money for the same project. In 2004, the police station price tag was $36 million. 

Ruiz’s proposal to immediately shift reserves to the police station represents an abrupt change in council direction. The City Council most recently considered the issue last spring. Councilors, as members of the city Budget Committee, directed that the reserve be used to retrofit City Hall, add police patrol officers and fund the city’s business loan program. Councilors later affirmed the decision in voting to approve the city budget. 

Citizens opposed to the city blowing its reserve on a police station that failed three times at the ballot could use the initiative/referral/recall power. A referral would be quicker than an initiative and require fewer signatures, but it might be legally easier to use an initiative on a budget matter.