Eugene Weekly : News : 5.14.09

Fleeing Downtown
Council sends a message with relocation plans
by Alan Pittman

The Eugene City Council is pressing forward with plans to move hundreds of government employees out of the struggling heart of Eugene. 

The council voted 6-1 May 11 to push forward with spending $16 million to move the Eugene Police Department out of downtown to a location across the river. An apparent council majority also spoke in favor of a scheme to displace hundreds of EWEB workers from their downtown headquarters to a site in far west Eugene in order to take over the building for the remainder of city hall staff. 

The council plans would strike a severe blow to downtown, taxpayer wallets and the environment and defy three ballot votes against a separate new police station. 

The council plan would move about 350 police employees and 250 EWEB administrative employees out of downtown for a total of about 600 workers, one of the largest job losses in downtown history. 

The council voted to move forward with an appraisal and other pre-purchase work for a private office building across the river on Country Club Road for the police department. The council also voted to schedule a “public forum,” but not a public hearing on the police and EWEB moves out of downtown. 

It’s unclear if councilors will attend the forum or even listen to citizen input. Most appear to have made up their minds on the police move despite three votes against increasing taxes and/or using city reserves to build a new police station.

Mayor Kitty Piercy noted that councilors appear set in their stand to move the police across the river. “I don’t see honestly anything new,” the mayor said. “We just need to move on.”

Councilor George Poling said that the council should just buy the building immediately without listening to the public. “We should just go ahead.”

But Councilor George Brown said the three no votes indicate a new police station is “a very low public priority.” 

“This could be a very divisive issue in the community,” Brown said. “My fear is that there will be a public backlash and people will refer it to the ballot.”

City Attorney Glenn Klein told councilors that they could legally structure their decision to make it impossible for voters to refer the expenditure to another vote.

“That would really destroy our credibility,” Brown replied. 

In the past, citizens have gathered signatures for charter amendments rather than ordinance referrals to get around such city legal maneuvering in defiance of voters. 

Councilor Betty Taylor opposed the move and said the council should refer the decision to the voters.

If the police and/or EWEB moves make it on the ballot, critics have said they will have a lot of hurdles to overcome. Here are some leading concerns:

Hurts downtown. Moving government workers out of downtown sends a powerful negative message about downtown. At a time when the city is spending millions of dollars trying to subsidize development in its struggling downtown, it is moving hundreds of its own employees out of downtown and arguing that building in the city center doesn’t make any sense. 

The councilors and city staff favor tearing down the existing City Hall, possibly leaving downtown with another pit.

While downtown will suffer from fewer people downtown, it will also suffer from a reduced police presence. South Eugene in general would also suffer longer police response times, especially with ever worsening traffic and accidents on bridge bottlenecks. In an earthquake and/or flood, most of the city could be cut off from its police force and the police parking at the new building in a floodplain could be submerged. 

Cost. The city has proposed spending $16 million on a police building that the county tax assessor lists as having a market value of only $7 million. 

By comparison, the Lane Council of Governments bought the similarly sized but higher quality Aster Building downtown last year for $6 million.

The city’s $16 million estimate also does not include the cost of a needed new police-only interchange onto I-105. Freeway interchanges elsewhere have cost tens of millions of dollars. It also does not include the added ongoing cost of building, leasing and staffing a proposed police substation downtown and the added ongoing cost of police time driving to and from downtown. The jail, courts and the vast majority of city police calls are all across the river. Police officers can cost cities more than $130 an hour when all costs are included, according to studies.

The majority of councilors also appear to support moving non-police department staff into space leased from private developers until they can take over the EWEB building. Such leases could cost millions of dollars a year.

If the city displaces EWEB, city taxpayers would also see a big jump in their utility bills to pay for the $100 million or more for a new administrative building for the utility on the edge of town.

The big city expenditures come as the city faces possible huge cuts in services and/or tax and fee increases to close a budget deficit of more than $12 million due to the deep recession.

Global warming. The isolated suburban police location will increase driving by police, support staff, administrators and citizens with police business. Driving is the largest local contributor to local air pollution and global warming. Reducing downtown density also promotes urban sprawl that damages natural areas. EWEB would be relocated to a site that could require filling wetlands.