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Safeco purchase generates questions

For several years the city has engaged Campbell DeLong Associates to sample public opinion of the citizens on Lake Oswego. Obviously, the city likes their work.

In their latest study completed in Jan/Feb of 2005 they asked the question:

The city council is considering construction of a community center designed to serve residents of all ages. The center could include recreational facilities, swimming pools, classrooms, and meeting spaces. The cost for such a center is estimated at $27 million. This would result in an annual cost to taxpayers of $162 per year for a house with an assessed value of $300,000.

30 percent of the respondents were not supportive at all while only 19 percent were very supportive. Overall, 45 percent were negative while 36 percent had a somewhat positive view.

Campbell DeLong reached the conclusion that: 'If council believes that a community center would be a valuable community asset, it will have to work to build greater support.'

In a city council morning meeting on April 4, 2006, the following comments were made:

Councilor (Ellie) McPeak appreciated (City Manager Doug) Schmitz's summary. The council was surprised by the citizens not rising up to say the community center was a great idea. This might be exactly the time to find out the community's thoughts because there might be a lot to learn.

Councilor (Gay) Graham was likewise taken aback by the response to the community center, and she was saddened that those who did support the facility did not come forward while the opponents were vociferous. It was a huge concept, and people needed time to engage.

Yet, a mere two weeks later, without a clear public mandate and even with the above documented council acknowledgement of that fact, the council voted unanimously (with no further public input or public opinion surveys) to spend $20 million to purchase the Safeco property and develop it as a community center.

It is unacceptable that the council's $20 million Safeco purchase decision was made with no public support. But, to add insult to injury, we now know that the survey example of a $27 million community center (total project cost, not just the Safeco $20 million purchase) is no longer relative.

Why? Because the price tag, in reality, could be well over $100 million. That is: $20 million for Safeco and $80 million for the project according to a Sept. 27 Boora Architect proposal adopted by the council's Steering Committee and presented by the co-chairs to council at a Oc. 16 special council meeting. A projected total cost of $100, 053,662!

We're talking about almost a 4-fold increase in the price tag of a community center. Taxpayers of Lake Oswego are now faced with the prospect of an annual property tax increase of over $700 for 20 to 25 years for a $300,000 assessed valuation house ( of course multiples of the $700 figure would apply for much higher assessed valuation houses).

Councilors have financed 'their' purchase and related development costs with a $25 million, 6 percent per annum, bank line of credit loan instead of issuing general obligation bonds. General obligation bonds would be the typical, highly visible approach for a municipal government to take with a long term investment in real estate of $20 million. Further, the bonds must be voted on and approved by the taxpayers who would pay for them.

Now, six months and $600,000 in interest later, the public and its pocketbook, is engaged. The council, however, refuses to give opponents to the project a place to express disapproval of the purchase and the concept. They will only entertain positive input saying that they will bring the matter to a vote in two years time (maybe!).

The city council should bring its purchase of this building forward to the voters for approval (or not) immediately before any more funds are wasted on a project that the citizens do not support.

John Surrett is a resident of Lake Oswego.