With little fanfare, on May 7, Bend's City Council unanimously approved a $1.1 million contract with Angelo Planning Group. That contact is Phase I of a three phase review of the Urban Growth Boundary review.
It is encouraging that City Council is taking seriously the challenges and questions relating to the city's UGB. We agree that residents, elected officials and city planners need to have a robust discussion about how to best manage future development in Bend, and the pressures it places on environmental issues and livability considerations.
However, what concerns us is that City Council is farming out responsibility for this critical discussion and planning, and spending $1.1 million—not an insignificant sum for an annual $250 million budget—for an out-of-town (Portland) firm to manage the process, money that could have been spent to create additional in-house positions, as well as strengthen the city's own planning department.
The current city planning department has 10 full-time planners on staff. City councilmember Victor Chudowsky points out that department staff will continue to oversee the process, even though a team of eight persons is being brought in from Portland. "There are two (city) planners still leading this process," he explains, adding, "There are other parts of their job (they still need to do). When the (UGB) process is over, the need for manpower goes back down." He concludes, "From a personnel perspective, it makes more sense."
We don't agree. We believe that such a sizable amount of money could support new positions within the city—and, in the process, bolster the planning department and create better institutional memory, not to mention underscore accountability. The decisions made during this process and debate over the UGB will determine planning decisions for the city's next 20 years. Shouldn't those decisions—and the persons responsible for them—stay within the city as best as possible?
Although City Council unanimously approved the contract, Scott Ramsay was one of the few who seemed to express any concerns about contracting out this important discussion and process. In an interview after the vote, he explained to us he had initial concerns about "the cost mechanism," explaining, "We're talking about logos and branding that made me concerned that we were spending money on fluff instead of moving forward."
Yet, he ultimately voted to approve the contract.
"We're actually gaining about eight employees," explained Ramsay, "instead of what two would cost."
That calculation seems overblown to us: $1.1 million is allocated for Angelo Planning Group, the external firm (what Ramsay refers to as eight employees) for Phase I. That "phase" is estimated to last from now until autumn. Even if stretched over two years, $1.1 million seems enough to support at least two full-time, top-notch city planners.
What's more, contracting out services instead of hiring new employees seems like a troubling trend for City Council. Last summer, we reported that the city contracted with an out-of-state firm to audit the number of home rentals, like AirBnB, in the area. At the time, the city slyly told us that the contract was somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000, an amount that certainly could have supported a new part or full-time staff member. Ultimately, the audit took a couple months and only found 50 residents who were not yet complying with city fees and taxes—a number which, in turn, will generate an estimated $35,000 each year. We still don't understand why the city needed to contract out for the services to contact AirBnB renters who potentially were not complying with local tax laws.
The contract with Angelo Planning Group is a much bigger deal, with the largest line-item listed as "public involvement"—$352,455 to be exact—nearly one-third of the entire budget. Again, we agree that emphasizing public involvement for policy decisions as critical to the shape and sensibility of Bend's future is admirable. However, we also think that farming these duties out does not seem to us like the most wise or expenditure. The amount allocated for "public involvement" alone certainly seems more than sufficient to hire at least two full-time city employees for a year to manage the public involvement process, including all of their benefits and infrastructure support.
We give this week's Boot to City Council for what we see as a first misstep in this very important process considering the UGB.