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Bend directing dollars to sidewalks, affordable housing


The last meeting of June for just about any local government is full of dollars and cents and numbers, as the next fiscal year looms – or in Bend’s case, a 2-year, $628 million budget was up for approval.

But Wednesday night, Bend city councilors also revisited and addressed some long-standing issues, though the evening included a few 5-2 votes to show all were not in a lockstep state of mind.

Though there were no votes on the two work session issues, there was direction to proceed on two of the thorniest city issues of recent years – making sidewalks more accessible for all (along with curb ramps), and doing something about the challenge of affordable housing for so many people finding Bend is just too expensive to live in.

They also returned to, and for a third time moved forward on an expanded “exclusion zone” for offenders accused of repeat crimes in downtown Bend – on one of those 5-2 votes.

But first, councilors got an update from Accessibility Manager Karin Morris on her proposals for how to tackle a big surge of “barrier removal requests” – bad or missing sidewalks or curb ramps – as disability advocates filed more than 150 such requests last fall, way more than the typical 10 a year the city saw before.

Those seeking equal access under the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly were stepping up their game, disgruntled that the U.S. Department of Justice closed the books on their years-old ADA settlement with the city, well before all – or even most – of the work was done.

The city had been spending $30,000 a year to respond to barrier removal requests, which can also include vegetation blocking walking, etc., which Morris said was “historically appropriate.” But now, the city has $900,000 in reserves dedicated to the problems.

Morris focused on two “high-priority areas,” with clusters of sidewalk/curb issues – one the neighborhoods around Wells Acres Road and the other south of downtown.

City Manager Eric King said they will be hiring an engineer as project manager to “come back with a more specific plan.” But even at this point, with the city at least quadrupling the amount spent in past years, Councilor Sally Russell was pleased with the maps, details and progress, noting, “We’ve come a long way.”

And Mayor Jim Clinton stressed that better sidewalks and the like are not just an issue for the disabled: “These projects help everybody.” And he also tipped his hat to those who have pressed for decades for more to be done: “We owe a debt of gratitude for the accessibility advocates, for keeping on this.”

On the affordable housing issue, city councilors gave the nod to up to $1 million over the next two years for exemptions to system development charges, known as SDCs, for qualified affordable housing projects. The Bend Park and Rec Board this week delayed its vote on a similar proposal, after some members earlier questioned whether such SDC breaks have the intended impact on the problem.

Assistant City Manager Jon Skidmore and Affordable Housing Manager Jim Long asked councilors to decide just how much of a break to offer, since reduced SDC revenue affects water, sewer and transportation budgets. They agreed not to cap the sewer or water fee breaks, allowing up to full exemptions, but capped the transportation SDC breaks at 75 percent, since the money is tighter in that area of the city budget.

Councilors also set a four-year “sunset” for the SDC breaks, after two bienniums worth of budgets to see if the fee breaks have helped leverage other funding and made more affordable housing projects happen. And following up on recent budget panel discussions, the fee exemptions will be targeted for the vast majority (85 percent) to go to multi-family housing, and just 15 percent for single-family homes.

Councilor Barb Campbell pointed to the need for flexibility, giving an example, “If someone wanted to build 1,000 units where we don’t have sewer or water (lines), we could say we need to have the CIP (Capital Improvement Project) money” derived from SDCs to serve that project. On the other hand, King noted, “some infill projects are not going to add stress to the infrastructure” as much, and Long pointed to ones “near transit corridors” that would have less impact on streets.

One of the numerous budget votes was a 5-2 affair, as Councilor Victor Chudowsky wanted more funds devoted to street preservation – ahead of a possible city gas tax vote; the council is due to hear results of a new citizen survey on the gas tax or other street funding proposals at a special June 29 meeting.

Colleague Casey Roats expressed concern about the amount of money spent on urban growth boundary expansion in recent years, so he voted no as well.

“I know it’s important,” Roats said. “My general concern for budgeting is, we need to have a community-wide discussion about what our priorities really are.”

Well before councilors again took up the expanded civil exclusion zone, Bend resident David Lynch spoke in the visitors section of the night and noted Portland and Eugene had dropped them. He said they violate residents’ constitutional rights to assemble and travel in public areas.

Later, Councilor Nathan Boddie agreed: “At best, we’re legislating taste. At worst, we’re violating constitutional rights.” And Campbell, a downtown business owner, repeated her problems with the zone, though not from a constitutional perspective.

“Crime has gone down citywide,” she said. “Crime has gone down downtown.” Even on the private property of the Old Mill District, she noted, “They still have shoplifting, still have a couple of assaults. I don’t believe we are going to decrease crime in the city overall. I think we’re just pushing it away” from downtown.”

But Clinton said with the recent changes to address constitutional issues, “I think we all look forward to how this works.”

Councilor Victor Chudowsky said, “A lot of this seems to be interpreted as an assault on homeless people,” and he said that’s not the case, as the ordinance spells out “specific criminal activity.”

“There needs to be more treatment of addiction problems,” he acknowledged, but for the city, “We don’t fund clinics, but we do fund the police department. It’s basically using the tools we have to address an issue that’s been around since I can remember.”

Chudowsky said he talks with downtown merchants who are “fearful” of the problematic activity among a relative few: “We have to respond to that in some way.”

He called it “unfortunate” the Portland and Eugene exclusion zones didn’t work out, but said he isn’t sure either cities downtown are “the example we want to aspire to.” He told of attending a concert in downtown Eugene and seeing “businesses closed, streets empty – it’s like ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ It’s not like the withdrawal of the exclusion zone addressed that situation. … Downtown Bend is looking at other cities and saying, ‘We don’t want to go there.”

Councilor Sally Russell said the zone had been reworked to address many of the concerns that were raised, and that “this is about repeat offenders.” (Though Campbell said the state law cited in the rules also includes some one-time crimes, such as littering, and suggested she might have changed her mind if colleagues removed that from the list.)

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