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Is There a Plan B for the Lane County Courthouse?

May 18th, 2019 by dk

I’m hesitant to bring up the topic, but a fair question deserves a fair hearing, even if it cannot always receive a fair answer. If Lane County’s Measure 20-299 fails next week, what’s Plan B?

Superstitions grow around ballot measures. Backup plans are believed to convey weakness or fear. Leaders try to keep things clear for voters — up or down, yes or no. That may be smart politically, but it’s not how any of us make real choices in life. Politics seldom resembles real life, but both might be better if it did.

The county is presenting its $154 million bond measure to voters as a bargain. The bond will go into effect only if state and federal sources add almost another $100 million to the project.

Initial polling showed the measure could pass in May, if voters were well informed about the current need and the financial benefits involved for the county. That polling was done before Eugene 4J schools decided to hurry its serial levy onto the May ballot.

The county has made two arguments in favor of the project. First, the local money will be leveraged with other sources to get us a better courthouse than our dollars alone would buy. Second, the current courthouse is showing its age, lacking many safety measures we expect in modern public buildings.

Those might be good arguments, but who is making them? There have been op-ed essays and letters to the editor, usually from local politicos and civic leaders. But will those messages reach people who don’t read newspapers?

I’ve seen no lawn signs. No public rallies. No waving supporters at busy intersections. No media events designed to highlight the need. Direct mail flyers and Voters Pamphlet support may not suffice.

The arguments on the other side, as expressed in the public forums, are more visceral, more personal, and usually more impassioned. Two broad themes have emerged.

First, there’s a skepticism that county planners have economized on the project in every way possible. Second, people complain — sometimes with heartfelt honesty — that they can barely make ends meet and wish county leaders felt the same pinch.

If voters turn down Measure 20-299, will Salem legislators feel less obligated to approve state funding that has been all-but-promised? Will other counties try to get their building projects fast-tracked ahead of ours? Or will the state make its $94 million contribution contingent on Lane County voters approving a modified bond in the fall?

If so, will voters resent being asked twice about funding the same project? Voters don’t usually like do-overs. If the county scales back the project the second time around, will voters ask why leaders didn’t trim the project sooner?

If there’s a Plan B, it’s not being talked about very openly. If the bond measure fails next Tuesday, some will say I jinxed it by asking these questions out loud. Superstition should not be the order of the day. Some leaders don’t like to hear their strategies questioned. But, worse than that, some don’t want to be accused of having any strategy at all.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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