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Voters get a surprise

A ballot measure from the city will determine Safeco's future

Voters this fall will have a chance to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the city's purchase of the Safeco building on Kruse Way.

By a slim majority, the Lake Oswego City Council Tuesday decided to put the $20 million property purchase on the Nov. 7 ballot.

'We need to address the issue now,' said Councilor Kristin Johnson, who managed to sway just enough council members in the 4-3 vote. 'I feel strongly that the vote needs to be in November.'

The November ballot will have another measure that could have an impact on the Safeco building purchase.

That measure will ask voters if they would like to amend the city charter to restrict the city from property purchases of more than $2 million without voter approval.

The amendment would be retroactive to the time of the Safeco building purchase, in July 2006. If it passes, voters could decide whether to keep or sell Safeco in the March 2008 election. The building is located at 4101 Kruse Way.

Ultimately, both measures lead to the same question: Do residents want the Safeco building?

The measure put on the November ballot by the city council will be an advisory vote. It will ask voters if they want to keep the property and give them an estimate of what it would cost to pay for it, but it will not approve new taxes. That vote would follow in March 2008.

The tax for the $20 million Safeco property would be $105 per $300,000 assessed value, according to city estimates. Council members emphasized that a property owner's assessed value, which is set by the county, is often less than the market value.

If the November advisory vote passes, the March vote would require a double-majority: More than 50 percent of the electorate would have to turn out and more than 50 percent would need to approve it.

If voters decide they want to keep the building, the city would likely need to return to them with a measure to fund improvements to the building. Early estimates to convert the building into a community center are between $55 million to $60 million.

The actual use of the building, if kept by the city, may change.

Although the city has done extensive community outreach and hired architects to do initial redesigns to convert the building into a community center and has a separate Web site devoted to the project, some council members maintain that they don't want to limit the property's use to just a community center.

Councilor Roger Hennagin said the council 'created a misconception' that the Safeco building was purchased for a community center. He mentioned alternative uses for the property: A new city hall, new library or police and 9-1-1 dispatch building.

'The retention of the Safeco property creates many options,' said Hennagin.

John Surrett, spokesperson of the group Ask Lake Oswegans, said the council is trying to 'worm their way' out of initially backing the community center by proposing other uses that are less expensive and less controversial.

Surrett's group, Ask Lake Oswegans, gathered the signatures to put the charter amendment measure on the November ballot.

Several council members have been highly critical of the charter amendment to curb the city's purchasing power without a vote of the people.

Mayor Judie Hammerstad said the measure, if passed, would 'limit the power of government' by forcing the city to get voter approval for property purchases of $2 million or more.

'What we have is a group of people who are generally interested in limiting government,' said Councilor John Turchi.

Surrett said he was angry with some councilors for their remarks, calling their comments 'extremely disparaging.'

He said he needed time to review the council's November ballot measure before commenting on it.

Councilor Ellie McPeak said the council was not taking pot shots at Ask Lake Oswegans; instead councilors were expressing opinions.

Councilor Frank Groznik said the issue of whether it was right to buy the Safeco building is a simple one.

'If the population doesn't think it's a good idea, then let's get rid of it,' he said.