Accountability Is the Real Problem

Here we go again — up to 30 more years of urban renewal, because “the city concludes that the entire urban renewal area is blighted.” After 48 years and approximately $130 million (surely over a quarter of a billion dollars adjusted for inflation), the total taxable valuation of all of the property in the district is not even equal to the inflation-adjusted tax money we have poured into it.

Urban renewal’s failure, however, is not the cause of the ineffectiveness of Eugene’s city government, nor is it the only or the most important betrayal of the public interest.

To understand Eugene politics, one must contemplate just how upside-down city governance has become. In theory, elected councilors bring the priorities of the community to the table and the manager administers council’s direction.

In Eugene, the city manager does the politics, and council appears unconcerned about public support for the manager’s agenda. This state of affairs is not so much the fault of our elected officials as it is the inevitable result of a charter that endows the manager with way too much power.

When I was elected to Eugene City Council in the early 1990s, then Councilor Shawn Boles warned me that councilors were like mushrooms “kept in the dark and fed manure.” Council’s real influence on Eugene’s civic affairs is so minimal that most council seats are uncontested. City councilors are not even given an office!

I want to highlight the negative results of the power imbalance in our peculiar version of the city manager form of government.  In short, our city government is by its nature unaccountable, wasteful and indifferent to the priorities of the citizens.

Here are two examples of projects that are despised by the public, yet sanctioned by our docile council despite public outrage. You can see that the Urban Renewal scam is chump change compared to the cost of these unloved projects.

Police palace Despite two citizen advisory exercises which urged that police headquarters remain downtown near City Hall, City Manager Ruiz inexplicably purchased a forlorn white elephant, for Eugene’s “new” police headquarters — total budget  $35 million for the building and its remodeling. The new police facility is several times the size of the old digs.

City Hall fiasco The City Council commissioned a study of the cost of refurbishing our  existing, award-winning mid-century modern City Hall. The highest estimate to refurbish our iconic City Hall was $12 million. The manager and his minions attacked the work of their own consultant and  pressured council to approved a new $15 million City Hall. The price tag has already risen to $25 million and still climbing. Once again, citizen input overwhelmingly supported refurbishing the existing historic City Hall.

And then there is a second strategy for avoiding any meaningful public discussion of our revenue priorities — indirect subsidies of private projects.  Consider these two examples:

MUPTE project Student housing projects such as Capstone (13th and Olive) not only received 10-year tax exemptions, but also received all sorts of other indirect benefits from the city. For example, Capstone was permitted to start construction without permits and to ignore design standards that would be imposed on local developers. So far, we have forgone about $2,110,000 in taxes.

Of course, as time passes, and more MUPTE projects are built, this number will balloon. Who will ever build an apartment complex on his own dime now that Ruiz set this awful precedent?

Sweetheart deals For example, during Jon Ruiz’s first three years at the helm in Eugene, the city’s rent expense increased from $665,631 to $1,431,442, an increase of more than $775,000 annually. City offices were moved out of their existing market rate office space into the new urban renewal subsidized office space, not only massively increasing the city’s rent bill, but even paying the developers for all unrented space.

These examples are truly the tip of the iceberg.

Ending the urban renewal slush fund would be a good start, but would not, by itself, fix Eugene’s broken politics. Council should have kept its word and closed the Downtown Urban Renewal District. But still more importantly, our council and mayor should be required to refer to the voters any action that subsidizes private development or funds a major capital improvement. Your property taxes should fund basic city services unless you, the folks who pay the bills, give the city bureaucracy permission to use your money for some other purpose. — Paul Nicholson

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