The engineering firm heading up Bend's controversial surface water upgrade is already cashing on in its lucrative contract with the city.
According to the city's financial records, it has already cut a pair of checks to Omaha-based HDR, Inc. totaling more than a $1 million for design work on the project that will replace the city's aging surface water system. All told, the city expects to spend more than $68 million on the project that also includes a new federally mandated treatment system and a potentially lucrative hydropower plant.
However, the project has come under fire from a broad coalition of critics, including almost half a dozen former mayors.
On Monday night, opponents packed the Bend Planning Commission meeting in an effort to lobby the city's planning commissioners to omit the project from the city's official public works planning documents. Moey Newbold, who is helping to coordinate some of the organized opposition through Central Oregon Landwatch, a Bend-based environmental group, estimated that roughly 75 people showed up at city hall to listen and testify.
"Planning commission meetings haven't been this sexy for awhile," quipped longtime planning commissioner Nathan Hovekamp when describing the atmosphere in a subsequent interview.
Planning commissioners spent more than three hours taking public testimony after deciding to waive the three-minute limit on comments that other public bodies often invoke. According to Hovekamp and Newbold, all but one speaker testified in opposition to the surface water project.
In the end, planning commissioners voted 4-2 to approve the larger facilities plan, but only after adding the caveat that the approval was not an endorsement of the surface water element.
Hovekamp, who has served eight years on the planning commission and previously served on the Bend-La Pine School Board said it was a particularly cumbersome issue even for a veteran planning commission. Unlike most questions, which are put to the planning commission for review prior to being submitted to the city council, the surface water project discussion has occurred almost entirely outside the planning commission's purview. When the issue came before the planning body on Monday night, it had been more than a year since the council gave its blessing to proceed with the complex project.
In the meantime, political opposition to the project has been building. In addition to environmental groups, business leaders, including Old Mill developer Bill Smith and former Bend Chamber of Commerce President Jack Holt, have voiced skepticism about the necessity and cost of the massive public works undertaking.
Last week, opponents submitted a petition with what they said were 1,000 signatures from Bend residents who oppose the project. Monday night's meeting was a show of force for the coalition that packed the council chambers to standing room only and spilled out into the hallway.
It took planning commissioners roughly five hours to render a split decision.
Planning Commission Chair Kevin Keilor who switched his vote after some wordsmithing to clarify the commission's position on the surface water project called the entire episode, "planning in reverse," and Hovekamp said it was awkward for commissioners to try to review the facilities plan as presented without considering the surface water project as part of that discussion.
"Here we had this plan that we were told that we had to approve so the [urban growth boundary] process could go forward. And yet, one of the key components was not even up for discussion," Hovekamp said.
In the end, Hovekamp said he couldn't vote for the public works plan even with the explicit disclosure about the surface water project.
"I'm protective of the integrity of the planning commission process, the product and the decisions. When we approve that (facilities plan), and despite assurances to the contrary, it appears to be a tacit approval of a highly technical project that we have not been privy to," he said.
For opponents, the episode is more evidence that the city has gotten ahead of itself in the rush to meet both federal deadlines for drinking water and construction deadlines that would allow the city to piggyback on the county's planned reconstruction of the pipeline route along Skyliners Road.
While the city is still months, and possibly years, away from breaking ground on the re-build project, opponents, including local attorney Bill Buchanan said the city's ongoing spending, which included checks to HDR in July for $699,166 and in August for $566,610 will bind the city council and staff to a project that they say is going to result in significant hikes for ratepayers while washing away an opportunity to restore flows for fish and wildlife in Tumalo Creek.
City Manager Erik King, who didn't attend Monday night's meeting, said he didn't see any evidence that the city was putting the cart before the horse by ramping up work with its engineering firm even as the planning commission wrestled with the project. While the planning commission's discussion was wide ranging, the issue of whether to fund specific projects is a job for the city council and the city's infrastructure advisory committee, both of which have signed off on the project, King said.
"At this point it would be a policy discussion if the council wanted take a different direction on the project. They have the discretion to do that, but I haven't heard they are interested in doing that," King said.