Is it the right time? Also: Council votes 4-3 to again urge tourists to stay away
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Back in early February – which seems like a very long time ago -- Bend city councilors voted unanimously to send a $190 million transportation bond measure to the May ballot.
It never happened, of course.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy hard just weeks later, the city council scrapped that vote – and while the council may soon decide to send it to the November ballot, it appears the vastly changed economic landscape makes a unanimous vote less likely.
Councilors received a staff presentation at Wednesday evening’s work session and began discussing whether to go to voters in November, with a ballot filing deadline in early September.
Even with still fairly strong support in a new community survey (61% of likely voters), the notion of asking voters to put up more tax dollars for a long list of road and alternate-mode projects amid the turbulent economic seas of COVID-19 is bringing misgivings to light.
City Manager Eric King noted that while the cost would be $170 a year for an average home, the bonds would ramp up over years, not bringing that big a bill all at once.
Councilors talked about again forming an oversight committee, to make sure the money is spent as promised, but also play a role in when bonds are issued and for how much. King laid out options, such as asking voters for approval now, but only levying bonds once the jobless rate drops below 10%, for example.
The latest state projections are for a slow recovery from the severe economic hit, which makes for “a lot of uncertainty,” King said at one point – and that could be considered a major understatement.
Councilor Chris Piper said he supports asking voters this fall for the money needed to keep up with growth, but noted, “I think we’re really trying to thread the economic needle here, very carefully, in finding a balance.”
Colleague Justin Livingston said he doesn’t support moving forward, due to high unemployment and property owners in forbearance programs, among others economic challenges.
“I just don’t feel that anything’s actually lost by waiting,” he said. “Actually, I think it presents an opportunity for great success, if we do wait. … I just don’t know that this is the right time.”
Councilor Genna Goodman-Campbell offered a cautious tone. “I’m open to continuing discussions,” she said, adding that she shared Livingston’s “concerns about economic conditions possibly worsening in the lead-up to the election, and afterward.”
Colleague Barb Campbell said she, too, is “interested in moving forward” and backed King’s idea of tying the issuing of bonds to a simple economic barometer: the jobless rate.
Councilor Bill Moseley said the need is obviously growing, as more homes are built, but he’s against going to voters in the fall.
He said the bond costs passed on by property owners would hit renters, the people hit by this year’s job losses the hardest and the most susceptible and vulnerable.
Moseley said he “might consider it next May, when we know more” about how the pandemic progresses and the economy hopefully recovers.
Colleague Bruce Abernethy said, “I think this is really a difficult question. No matter what we do, there are some downsides to it” -- such as higher construction costs when you wait, meaning a bigger bill -- or less getting done.
Still Abernethy said, “I’m actually strongly supportive of moving forward and putting something on the ballot in November. … We’re going to get even more people moving here, so we need to get this as soon as we can, to improve the roads” and bike and pedestrian systems.
Mayor Sally Russell, as is customary, spoke last, acknowledging the challenges but also noting that building permits – and traffic – are rebounding and tourists are returning, despite the resulting concerns.
“This bond measure was because we were behind” on meeting Bend’s transportation needs, Russell said. “It’s also a jobs and economic stimulus,” she added, saying the “chances are good we’ll have more stimulus funds from the state and feds” that can help complete the projects.
Summing it up, the mayor said, “It looks like we have a majority, but we don’t have total agreement on moving forward” in November.
City staff will proceed with drafting a possible measure in coming weeks, and more discussion is likely at the council’s next meeting, in three weeks. A council resolution to file a ballot title would be on the agenda two weeks later, on Aug. 19, with a Sept. 3 measure filing deadline looming.
Speaking of tourists, after Moseley criticized the Visit Bend website for still promoting visits to the city, councilors on a bare 4-3 majority directed King to draft a renewed travel advisory, discouraging tourist visits through Labor Day – and to inform Visit Bend. (Moseley, Livingston, Russell and Goodman-Campbell were in favor; Piper, Abernethy and Campbell were opposed.)
Other ideas to curb the spread of COVID-19 – limiting how many people can stay in vacation rentals, imposing a new 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants – got hung up on process and the like.
Livingston noted that the case data shows the bigger issue is family gatherings, not restaurants and bars.
“I don’t think we should react emotionally,” he said. “It needs to be based on facts.”