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Cities face down tough issues at forum

Mayors had to jump into their challenges last week at the State of the Cities event hosted by the North Clackamas Chamber for hundreds in the audience at the Monarch Hotel.

Moderator and former State Superintendent Verne Duncan didn’t let the mayors give lengthy speeches on Jan. 30. Forcing them to address controversial issues, Duncan read pointed questions from audience members.

Milwaukie Mayor Jeremy Ferguson had just discovered other changes to the Clackamas County portion of the light-rail line that came after TriMet’s budgetary challenges. Ferguson had to defend the value of light rail in the face of renewed criticism over further cuts.

“Some of that is justified, and some of that is fear factor,” he said. But he sees an “overwhelming” majority of business owners and residents excited about the line coming.

Mayor Doug Neeley will expound more on Oregon City’s fear of a water-rate rollback at his own State of the City address on Friday, Feb. 22. See 2012 stories “OC rate rollback hits city projects,” Aug. 14, and “Poll: Voters oppose water-rate rollback,” Nov. 20 for more information.

“We’ll probably be going to the voters with a referendum in May,” Neeley said.

Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett wants to present a plan for city growth to voters in November after last year’s ballot initiative forced voter approval of such plans.

“It’s a little bit like threading the needle,” he said, “but I have confidence that we’re going to come up with a comprehensive plan that’s going to be acceptable to the people.”

If a ballot measure for disincorporation of Damascus passes and the comprehensive plans fail, voters would hand power back to the Board of County Commissioners. Spinnett explained that such a scenario would dissolve the city’s charter, then all city assets would go to Clackamas County, which would have to redo its comprehensive plan.

Spinnett promised to “keep it positive” in responding to a question about his lawsuit over four other council members allegedly having an illegal meeting.

“I eventually dropped the case, because the cost to me to pursue it wasn’t worth it,” he said, adding he had been seeking “transparency in government, and that wasn’t transparency.”

Gladstone Mayor Wade Byers claimed that his biggest challenge last year was to pass fourth iteration of police and fire levies to prevent “dramatic” cuts in other areas of the city.

“Fortunately our voters saw fit to pass those levies,” Byers said.

As Byers discussed his next major crusade to seek grants for some aging infrastructure to maintain pipes, some audience members wondered about the city’s plans for a new library that failed at the ballot box in November. Byers did not discuss the library issue until asked directly, when he said, “We’re working on it.”

At first the mayors seemed to agree that tax compression wasn’t a problem for Clackamas County cities, but Happy Valley Mayor Lori DeRemer saw a bigger issue in state tax measures that are “handcuffing” government.

“Please do not let this drop off the radar, gentleman,” she told the other mayors after their comments. “It will affect us in the future, and we have to pay attention to that.”

If Damascus plans failed, she worried Happy Valley would become a “cul-de-sac” for East County. She saw hope, however, in the Eagle Landing project in parts of unincorporated Clackamas County that would focus growth on two million square feet of buildable space.

Local mayors are not unique in having challenges.

The League of Oregon Cities “State of the Cities” report released last month predicted “a robust recovery for Oregon’s cities is highly unlikely as they continue to feel the pinch of rising costs, stagnant revenue growth and escalating citizen demands.” City survey data found city revenues have declined during the past six years, with general fund revenues down an average of nearly 1.5 percent.

Areas of agreement

On the subject of Oak Grove incorporation, the mayors agreed, with a proviso from Spinnett on ongoing local challenges. They felt that city taxpayers were subsidizing Clackamas County’s efforts in urban unincorporated areas, where there’s been a renewed drive to become a new city.

“Most of us would probably support an effort,” Neeley said.

DeRemer and Ferguson celebrated their cities’ recent resolution of growth-boundary discussions (“Cities agree on Clackamas Town Center boundary line” Dec. 5).

“At this point, it would be better if these businesses came into a city rather than staying with the county,” DeRemer said.

Cuts to Milwaukie staffing indicate that it may be a challenge to take on those extra areas soon, Ferguson added.

“It takes a lot of growth to make a big impact on city resources,” Byers noted.

Sitting down with Clackamas County attorney Chris Storey and Commissioner Paul Savas, Ferguson managed to end a more than 25-year-long dispute (“County and Milwaukie reach sewer agreement,” April 30). The deal got county money toward reducing stench and mitigating the uglier features of the county’s sewage plant in a prominent part of Milwaukie’s downtown.

“As you enter Clackamas County from Portland, you have an opportunity to see a really nice McLoughlin Boulevard,” Ferguson said.

However, a capital campaign for the $7.5 million Riverfront Park project has raised less than $10,000 so far.

“Soon we’ll start seeing the red on that thermometer,” Ferguson said, adding that he still hoped to get the park completed in time for the opening of the light-rail line in 2015.




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