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Former leader urges urban-renewal oversight

I served on the Oregon City Urban Renewal Commission (URC) from June 2008 to January 2012.

The City Commission had changed neighborhood boundaries to exclude neighborhood associations from the downtown Urban Renewal District. The URC consisted of the City Commission until they decided in 2008 to expand the URC to include community interests, including representatives from Park Place and McLoughlin neighborhoods, now adjacent to the UR District. During that time I had been active in Park Place Neighborhood Association and was one of the candidates forwarded by the PPNA Steering Committee. Not knowing anything about urban renewal at the time, I was very honored to be selected and wanted to do my best for the community.

Right away, and with a sense of urgency, we were presented with several project and debt proposals amounting to tens of millions of dollars. A significant investment of years, staff time, millions of dollars of consultants and public involvement had already occurred well before my appointment. Knowing nothing at the time other than the information presented, I trusted the staff, attorneys and consultants were presenting what was best for the community, and I voted “yes” on the projects and public debt, which I now deeply regret.

I spent many hours over the next several years learning about urban renewal and trying to ask the right questions when decisions came before the URC. What I learned during this period was shocking and disappointing, consisting of lies of commission and omission by a publicly paid team of city staff, attorneys, consultants and elected leaders, fueled by local reporters.

The real truth came from questions asked by neighbors, reading reports and audits from other jurisdictions, and assembling information myself. I learned that the corruption runs deep in Oregon City. We are told that urban renewal pays for itself and creates economic development and prosperity. This is proven to be false, not only for the development proposals championed locally but also the majority of municipalities that adopt urban renewal. This is why the California Legislature abolished all 425 of its redevelopment agencies earlier this year, and on Aug. 16, New York Governor Cuomo eliminated 28 local public authorities and 95 redevelopment agencies.

He said, “Given that these authorities and agencies no longer serve the public interest, it only makes sense to do away with them for good.”

As a government employee I have seen and reported my fair share of waste, fraud and abuse. I also know of conditions where government is effective by adopting best practices. I researched and presented best practice proposals during my last year as URC chairwoman, including a Request for Proposals competitive requirement for projects. I referenced a number of reports including the Center on Wisconsin Strategy’s “Proposed Elements of TIF Reform,” based on improving living standards and to promoting sustainable economic development. They examine “high road,” strategies that are associated with high productivity, high pay, reduced environmental damage, and greater commitment to the health and stability of surrounding communities. In contrast,“low road” strategies are associated with low pay, economic insecurity, and degraded natural environments and communities.

I learned that Oregon City consistently chooses “low road” strategies, most recently eliminating community interest positions from the URC. Not that anybody would ever want to be treated the way I was after asking questions and doing the math, you can imagine how much a $130 million public credit card means to some. We should all be in the position to do the math and question if public debt is being used wisely, just as we do for other city debt bonds. Because we have been lied to, cheated and abused.

Voting “Yes” on Measure 3-407 will help stop the abuse by requiring voter approval on all new urban renewal debt bonds.

Nancy Walters is a resident of Oregon City.




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