Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Oregonian Does Good Reporting on Portland Street Repair Fees; Editors Don't Follow Suit

Brad Schmidt nails Portland's street repair problems in a reporting masterpiece. Schmidt points out that Portland's road problems are due to poor City Council decisions that resulted in "redirecting" $200 million that should have gone for street repairs.
Portland leaders blame the poor condition of city roads on many things: stagnant gas taxes, powerful business opponents and the cost of police, firefighters and parks.
They could also blame themselves.
The City Council has ignored its own spending guidelines for the past 27 years, redirecting nearly $200 million targeted for transportation projects to unrelated efforts, according to an analysis of city financial documents by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Because of the misdirection of funds, Portland now faces a nearly $1 billion repair bill instead of the $38 million that would have been needed.
As a result, Portland streets have plummeted into disrepair, with more than half now rated in poor or very poor condition. And because roads cost exponentially more to rebuild than maintain, officials missed a crucial window: Repair costs have spiraled from a relatively manageable $38 million in 1988 toward a staggering $1 billion.
Instead the City Council voted to use the funds for popular and pet projects.
Instead of tending to Portland's crumbling roads, the City Council approved nearly dollar-for-dollar spending on arts programs, downtown beautification and school bailouts, among other so-called "special appropriations," the review found.
But now, Mayor Charlie Hayes and Council member Steve Novick want a new funding source even though the Council has abused the old funding source. They also want the same "flexibility" to divert funds as with the old funding source.
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick want to charge residents and businesses upward of $40 million a year to pay for transportation projects. Under the latest but in-flux proposal, residents faced annual bills of $36 to $144, depending on income.
Hales and Novick are also seeking leeway in spending decisions, the same flexibility that allowed the City Council to divert money from fixing streets in the first place.
Schmidt deserves plaudits for his tour de force reporting in digging up the facts and seeing the underlying City Council problem.

This has been going on for 27 years, but the Oregonian editorial board still doesn't get the problem. They want a new source for road repair funds. Their quibble is with the structure of that new source. Not a word about misuse of the old funding source. Here's their thinking from a recent editorial.
Rather than allowing the street-funding effort to slide hopelessly into progressive paralysis, Hales should exhibit some timely leadership. Colleagues Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have insisted upon putting any street-funding mechanism before voters, a condition to which Hales ought to agree. After all, both Novick and Fritz are now eyeing the ballot. Instead of offering voters an unfair and administratively costly income tax, though, Hales should seek a residential funding option that is simple, modest and temporary. Asking for a property tax bond to fund significant repairs, as Eugene does periodically, is one option.
Playing a big role in City Council irresponsible action is the lack of effective criticism by the free press, including Portland's 100 pound gorilla, the Oregonian.  There should have been constant beating of the drum in reporting and editorializing on City Council misuse of funds and failure to care for legal responsibilities the last three decades. But, there wasn't. (Unfortunately, the same thing holds for Oregon state issues.)

Oregonian reporter Brad Schmidt has put the real problem front and center. In Portland politics it's okay not to fulfill your responsibility if you are supporting popular causes. Until that is fixed new funding sources will do nothing to alleviate the problem. Too bad the Oregonian editors aren't taking Schmidt's reporting seriously.


OregonGuy said...

Obviously, the City of Portland needs to hire a consulting firm.

Or, several.

MAX Redline said...

Nice catch, TD! One additional point: the reason why PDOT has been allowed to use transportation funds for streetlights is tied to the fact that they've been replacing the old halogens with LEDs. In addition to providing better illumination, they use a lot less energy than the halogens.

And that can only mean one thing: more money for City Council pet projects!

At present, they have a surplus of $19 million. Not one dime of that is going to streets; it's all being diverted to more "social services".

People would be fools to let PCC have any more money; the annual "budget" is already $4 billion; in Indianapolis (same size as Portland) they manage with an annual budget of $1.9 billion.

T. D. said...

OG, the voters need to be their consulting firm. But, since Portland voters are mostly just as whacked out at the Council, this is what we get.

You can tell that the City has changed when Earl Blumenauer supported a coherent policy 25 years ago. Back then the voters required even left leaning officials to have common sense.

T. D. said...

Max, you've been on top of the specifics of this for a long time. I just thought it amazing that Schmidt laid the case out so pointedly. Bringing in Blumenauer was a master stroke. I wonder how he knew that Blumenauer had taken that position.

MAX Redline said...

I agree, Schmidt did a great job of it. And as you note, things have changed a lot with Portland voters in the past 25 years. Sadly.

It was interesting to find that the "consultant" that The Little General and PBOT have been paying $175 an hour to help them put together a "street fee" just happens to have worked for the city for a dozen years before deciding to be a "consultant".

They paid his little company $100,000 last year and were all set to toss another $35,000 his way yesterday until somebody showed up and objected. So the City Council's postponed the vote. Just a temporary setback, doubtless.

T. D. said...

Their wasteful spending just doesn't stop, does it, Max?

OG, was this what you were talking about tongue in cheek with hiring more consultants?