Renewing Urban Renewal

I don’t usually attend Eugene City Council meetings, because I always think Don Bishoff would do it better. Bishoff faithfully and playfully recounted the councils’ antics and educated a generation of Eugene newspaper readers about what their local government was doing or repeatedly failing to do. We miss him.
But last week’s agenda compelled me to attend. Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz presented a comprehensive package for downtown that addressed public safety needs, development opportunities, and funding mechanisms. Rather than tackling each of these nettlesome issues piecemeal, he attacked all three at once in what I dyslexically call “one swell foop.”
The council’s first response? They voted immediately to separate the proposal so they could debate and vote on each part, relieving any councilor of the difficulty of accepting parts they dislike to achieve an end that they support.
Not surprisingly, the council then approved specific downtown improvements, but stalled when it came to finding ways to pay for them. Specifically, several councilors objected to extending the life of the downtown urban renewal district. They voiced general skepticism for the tool of tax increment financing (TIF). The council agreed to return to the issue — their tiff about TIF — in a couple of weeks, which is the legislative equivalent of exchanging phone numbers at the scene of a fender bender, except this crash keeps happening, over and over, at the same spot, in slow motion.
I have favored tax increment financing, which allows a city to reinvest property tax collections inside a specified “district” to hasten “urban renewal.” It’s been a great tool in other places — Portland, most notably — but its history in Eugene for the last generation is checkered at best.
I better understand the skepticism now, and it’s because I was in the room last week and not watching the meeting on cable TV. I had the good fortune of sitting beside one of Eugene’s fiercest opponents of tax increment financing. She graciously provided color commentary of the proceedings.
“Seething” is the word that comes to mind.
Through her eyes, and in several other conversations since, I see their rage and sympathize with their point of view. I still think we can mend, not end, urban renewal, but only if we’re straight to the point, sharp and quick.
First and foremost, Make Schools Whole. Focused funding for downtown diverts some funds that would have gone elsewhere, including public schools. No Eugene K-12 school should suffer a lost nickel because we’ve decided to focus attention and funding on downtown. If urban renewal is to be used for downtown, it should be understood that 4J Superintendent George Russell and Bethel School District Superintendent Colt Gill will send the city an invoice for any funding shortfall related to urban renewal and the city will pay it. No questions asked.
The city has gotten admirably creative about swapping with Springfield or with Lane County to achieve shared goals, but this issue demands no fancy footwork. A nickel lost by our schools is a nickel paid to our schools. Period.
We cannot allow education to suffer so that downtown can thrive. I understand that better from being in the room.
After the business of the meeting was finished, several councilors quickly went on record praising the Civilian Review Board, which had met the evening before and voted to recommend that Police Chief Pete Kerns reopen his investigation of the tasering of the Chinese student in September.
I noticed those who praised these volunteer citizens as heroes were the same voices who were nervous about tax increment financing. Abuse of power is at the root of these fears. So let’s form a Civilian Review Board to monitor our Urban Renewal Districts.
Ruiz already has included in his proposal a citizen panel to provide feedback and oversight, modeled after a group he convened to monitor road funding and improvements. But given the level of angst in the room about Urban Renewal Districts, Ruiz should consider applying the same balm to heal a similar wound of distrust.
A politically appointed review board can best earn the community’s trust to oversee the extended life for downtown’s Urban Renewal District, followed if necessary by its certain death.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.