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Milwaukie council split over $5-million payment to TriMet

Mayor removes himself from debate due to his TriMet job

Mayor Jeremy Ferguson's decision to recuse himself from Milwaukie's discussion on how to pay a $5-million pledge to TriMet's light rail project left the city council split over whether to send the issue to voters.

Leading the conversation in Ferguson's absence Sept. 6, Council President Greg Chaimov said he believed a majority of the remaining elected officials would ultimately favor setting up a payment plan through TriMet. Through a baseball stadium and other commercial development along light rail, Chaimov and Councilor Joe Loomis hoped that the property taxes would go up to make the payments to TriMet without affecting city programs.

But the two other members of council, who were elected in November on a platform of referring the matter to voters, doubted that property taxes still recovering from a recession would cover the obligation. Councilor Dave Hedges worried that the city didn't know its balance owed to TriMet nor its total revenue increase from development associated with light rail.

'There's a big gaping black hole here, and I don't think we have enough information to make a decision,' Hedges said. 'To me the only sensible way to pay it is to borrow the $5 million and get it approved by the voters.'

Milwaukie's $5 million would be lessened by the transit agency's acquisition of right-of-way and leasing of city properties, but those amounts won't be known until TriMet completes its final design, which it expects to do in March. According to an intergovernmental agreement signed by both parties in 2008, TriMet should get payment within 90 days of the Federal Transit Administration's funding grant (expected in June 2012).

Milwaukie Finance Director Richard Seals pointed out that the city is currently collecting permitting revenues on light rail and would continue to do so throughout the completion of construction in 2015. But the city's financial crystal ball predicted those revenues could be applied to paying off TriMet only in the short term.

'It might buy you some time to ask the voters this question,' Seals said.

TriMet would allow Milwaukie time to refer a measure that voters could approve, according to Councilor Mike Miller, who said he couldn't imagine the transit agency 'wanting bad publicity' by suing the city for $5 million, which amounts to less than 1 percent of the total project cost.

After the initial work-session discussion, Chaimov and Ferguson joked about getting in and out of 'timeout.'

Ethics Commission advice

Ferguson has heard from citizens advocating that he recuse himself from TriMet votes but says that he had already been planning to contact the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for advice. He's also already appointed a replacement council member to the city's light rail steering committee.

Ronald Bersin, the ethics commission's executive director, wrote back finding 'an actual conflict of interest' if Ferguson, employed as TriMet's customer information manager, voted on official city actions regarding TriMet.

'As an employee, you would have a financial interest in the decisions, actions or recommendations you could make in your official capacity,' Bersin wrote.

Jim Bernard was Milwaukie's mayor when the council passed a resolution 3-2 authorizing an intergovernmental agreement with TriMet in 2008.

'To this point I haven't been asked to vote in possible TriMet funding options, but now that those are coming, it's time for me to take this step,' Ferguson said.

Lake Road development

During their Sept. 6 regular session, the other four councilors unanimously adopted a memorandum of understanding with TriMet to build a commercial development as part of the Lake Road light rail station.

Ferguson will continue to represent Milwaukie on other transportation issues. Gov. John Kitzhaber recently appointed him to the Oregon Passenger Rail Leadership Group to help study rapid passenger rail options through the Willamette Valley.

If the council members decided to follow Chaimov's leadership, voters citywide still might get a chance to weigh in on TriMet payments. Chaimov responded that in the event that the city had to make a decision whether to cut services, city staff or pay TriMet, he would hope that then the community would be asked how to make that decision.

While Hedges said he wanted to avoid 'just putting off the eventuality' of needing to ask the voters, Chaimov said he wanted to avoid the expense of a ballot question unless it was necessary.

Ferguson said that he has always voted in every election and would continue to do so if decisions came to the voters.

'My plan is to stay silent publicly on TriMet matters affecting Milwaukie but retain my right to weigh in privately through my vote,' he said.

A study session on Sept. 27 is scheduled to cover more information about how the city finances could withstand making payments to TriMet.