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Leonard questions land purchase financing

Update: Debate continues with email exchange

Commissioner Randy Leonard is questioning how the Bureau of Environmental Services is paying its share of the purchase of 146 acres of open land in Southwest Portland approved by the City Council on Wednesday morning.

The council unanimously voted to join with the Metro regional government and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to buy the forest land from the River View Cemetery for $11.25 million. Of that amount, $6 million is coming from BES, which operates the sewer system and manages stormwater runoff. It collects both sewer and stormwater management charges from residents and businesses.

Although he voted for the purchase, Leonard asked BES director Dean Marriott to clarify whether his bureau's money was coming from sewer or stormwater management funds. Marriott promised to provide the answer Wednesday afternoon.

Marriott's answer did not satisfy Leonard, however. In an email, Marriott said the money was coming "from Stormwater Charges and not Sewer Charges."

At the same time, Marriott said the two funds are combined in the Sewer System Operating Fund that finances the bonds that pay for capital projects.

After receiving the email, Leonard wrote back for more information. He wants to know whether the bureau distinguishes between sewer and stormwater projects, and what percent of the land purchase is coming from Sewer Charges and what percent is coming from Stormwater Charges.

Marriott responded with an email that said approximately 35 percent of the operating fund is expected to be comprised of Stormwater Charges in the coming fiscal year. He said the bonds to purchase the property have already been issued, and that they will be repaid with Stormwater Charges.

The distinction is important because a recent city audit said that sewer charges can only be spent on sewer projects, defined in the City Charter as including sewer pipes and treatment facilities. The charter can be read to allow Stormwater Charges to be spent to buy natural areas that help purify watersheds, like the River View Cemetery property.

City officials said there were seven streams flowing through the property to the Willamette River. It also is just north of Tryon Creek State Park on Southwest Terwilliger Road

Marriott has yet to respond to Leonard's new questions. His bureau is overseen by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who advocated for the purchase along with Parks Commissioner Nick Fish.

Of the remaining money, Portland Parks and Recreation is paying $2 million, Metro is paying $2 million, and the Trust for Public Land is providing a $750,000 loan that could be repaid from a grant.