'Ask Lake Oswegans' take actionJOHN SURRETT
Members of the local citizens group called 'Ask Lake Oswegans' have met regularly since last fall, and recently filed an initiative petition to require voter approval of major real properly purchases by the city. The measure includes property transactions occurring after April 1, 2006, and requires voter approval for acquisitions exceeding $1 million by the first available election date. If voter approval is not obtained, the property must be placed for sale within 180 days. The amendment does not apply to any purchase necessary to address a direct threat to the health or safety of the citizens of Lake Oswego, but it will apply to the hasty decision to purchase Safeco last summer.
Many times over the past several months, members in 'Ask Lake Oswegans' called on the Lake Oswego City Council to open up the public discussion process to address public concerns over the decision to buy the Safeco properly.
The council passed a December 2005, resolution declaring the purchase of Safeco a 'public necessity' to enable (it) to condemn the property for purchase, which would be used for a community center project. The purchase decision was made in defiance of recent (Jan./Feb.'05) reliable community survey results showing low public support for a community center and in spite of a subsequent public hearing at which there was again low public support. Even at an April 4, 2006, city council morning meeting some Council members actually expressed surprise at the public's lack of enthusiasm for the community center project.
The council nevertheless was undeterred and ignored the financial rules that safeguard city funds by using more than 25 percent of revenues in general fund surplus revenue accounts for the purchase. (It) passed Resolution 0615 on April 18, 2006, to disregard the reserve fund rules and withdrew $20 million to purchase Safeco. Shortly after the purchase, the council took out a short-term credit line to 'restore' the reserves, as if nothing ever happened.
The ongoing interest on the line of credit loan costs Lake Oswegans about $100,000 every month. That amount doesn't include the loss to the city's tax base that occurred by moving a $20 million piece of property from (taxpaying) private sector into the (tax-consuming) public sector. It is a combined real and personal property tax revenue loss of more than $190,000 to all tax districts of which more than half that amount going to Lake Oswego schools and about a third to help run city government. Lake Oswegans were never asked for their input or approval while the council railroaded their plan through.
With all the incredible expenses facing Lake Oswegans for sewer and water infrastructure repairs and upgrades we must insist on having a say in non-essential real estate purchases made with city funds. This measure will not get in the way of the city's ability to conduct its business. According to Richard Seals, only one purchase besides Safeco has exceeded $1 million during his nine years as city finance director, the property on Second and B, which was bought for $1.2 million by the city and resold to the developers of the Stafford Commons townhouse and commercial office project.
Neither project, of course, had anything to do with city infrastructure needs or open space, but both would have benefited from a little more public scrutiny.
John Surrett is spokesperson for 'Ask Lake Oswegans' and is a resident of Lake Oswego.