Running on Empty: Decaying streets are a symptom of Oregon's ailing cities | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

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Running on Empty: Decaying streets are a symptom of Oregon's ailing cities


WKRP and Johnny Fever had the Turkey Drop, WLUP had Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park.

In Bend, local alternative rock station 92.7 has the Pothole Giveaway, an ongoing spring promo that encourages listeners to call in and nominate Bend's best potholes. Callers qualify for ticket giveaways and will have a pothole named in their honor later this spring.

While it may not go down as one of the more celebrated radio promo gimmicks of all time, it's one that Central Oregon commuters can relate to after a winter of traveling on our region's deteriorating roadways.

While the pothole giveaway is done with tongue firmly in cheek at Bend Radio Group, the actual pothole situation is no joke, especially in Bend where the cash-strapped city recently announced that it was going to all but stop filling potholes because of a lack of funds. Right now the city has a roughly five-year, $28-million maintenance tab on its transportation system. Fixing that backlog would require an immediate $13 million investment - just to get started - according to a recent city of Bend report. By way of contrast, the city has about $1.4 million budgeted for road repairs this year.

And, like health care, the longer you wait to address the problem the more expensive it gets. By some estimates, rebuilding roads can cost ten times as much as routine maintenance. Even the tax averse Bulletin editorial page recently endorsed the idea of the city going out for a street-maintenance bond to address the mounting road costs before it's too late.

Spiraling road maintenance costs and shrinking budgets aren't a problem unique to Bend or Central Oregon. Statewide, cities are falling further and further behind on their road upkeep. A 2007 report from the League of Oregon Cities estimated that municipalities were roughly $160 million upside down on their road maintenance. Now that the bill is coming due, cities like Bend and Redmond are finding that it's having broad implications on their operations. In Bend, streets are siphoning money away from the police and fire departments and public transportation, all of which compete for the same limited general fund dollars.

Now, with growth slowing to a standstill and notices of default on the rise, the city of Bend's leaders are faced with some unattractive options.

"The problem is really that between road maintenance, police and fire and transit there just isn't enough money in the till to do them all the way we think they should be done," sad Councilor Mark Capell.

At present, the city has four firefighting jobs left unfilled another three police officer positions remain open until further notice even as calls for service increase and response times sometimes lag. While Finance Director Sonia Andrews said the city expects to fill those jobs before the end of the year, it underscores how cities are faced with the prospect of cutting essential services in order to balance their ledgers.

In Bend the city has been through several rounds of layoffs in the past 16 months as the once-booming city grinds through the recession. The city has cut back on bus routes and transit hours even as ridership soars, paring roughly $500,000 from the transit budget while keeping the buses running.

"The first thing I hear from people is that we should cut our expenses to the bone and the people I hear that from don't realize that that we've had five rounds of layoffs at the city in the past year," Capell said.

In some ways the situation is the product of decades of anti-tax and anti-government policies in Oregon that have limited the ability of cities to raise money for essential services. The initiative system and laws like the infamous Measure 5, which caps how much cities can charge for property taxes, have encouraged cities to pursue pro-growth policies that keep dollars flowing. But now that growth has slowed and the bill has come due, there is no one left to pick up the tab.

In Redmond, for example, building fee collections are down to about 20 percent of what they were at the peak of the boom just a few years ago, said Chris Doty, public works director. Next year, they'll likely be even less given the lack of large-scale commercial projects, Doty said.

"Generally speaking, every local government is dealing with this issue. Basic transportation maintenance is one of the biggest hidden dinosaurs that we have. Given that the gas tax didn't increase for almost [20] years, it has left us with tremendous gaps to fill," Doty said.

As a result, the city is cutting back on new construction and trying to stretch its remaining dollars by dipping into the city's reserve fund, but that won't last forever.

Unlike Bend, Redmond tried for a home run last year when its city council adopted a gas tax only to see the measure referred to voters after the Oregon Petroleum Association (OPA) intervened, employing signature gatherers to send the question to voters on the January ballot.

It's a tactic that the OPA has employed around the state. The industry association, which collects political contributions from members, including several Central Oregon gas and fuel related businesses, has challenged nearly every local gas tax by forcing cities to refer the question to tax averse voters. In January, OPA helped overturne recently implemented gas taxes in Redmond and Madras. (Sisters voted to uphold its gas tax, but OPA has said it will file suit to overturn that one as well.)

"They have made it real clear that they don't care for city autonomy in this regard and we respectfully disagree and push back where we can," said Craig Honeyman, legislative director for the League of Oregon Cities (LOC).

In an effort to address the growing road funding gap for Oregon cities, the LOC worked with legislators and a diverse group of stakeholders, including the OPA, on a landmark transportation bill that increased the statewide gas tax by six cents per gallon while bumping up the vehicle registration and title fees charged by the state. The increased funds will be divided among the Oregon Department of Transportation, counties and cities. The increase is expected to funnel millions more in transportation dollars to cities like Bend. But it comes with a catch. The gas tax won't kick in until January 2011, or after two consecutive quarters of economic growth, whichever comes first.

That means that cities likely won't see any real dollars trickling in until 2012 or 2013, Honeyman said.

As part of the horse-trading required to get the deal done, cities had to temporarily surrender their gas tax authority; the moratorium sunsets in 2014.

At that time, the county clerks might reasonably expect a flood of new gas tax referrals as cities scramble to fill in their growing street deficits, joining the more than 30 Oregon cities and counties that have already adopted gas taxes. Whether Bend will be among them is an open question.

In the meantime, the city is weighing several other options that could put it in the vanguard of the municipal service cutting trend. The city is weighing jettisoning its fire department by spinning it off into the rural fire district, which would theoretically free up money for police and streets.

The city is already pressing forward on a plan to transfer control of its fledgling bus system to the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council and ultimately an independent transit district. In the meantime, city leaders say they're focusing less on funding everything they have in the past and more on telling residents that the city is already paying for what it can. It's called living on a budget. And it's the new Oregon.

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