Past bonds helped buy green spaces, not improve them

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Metro officials tour the Chehalem Ridge Natural Area in January 2010, shortly after Metros purchase.A little more than 20 years ago, Metro didn’t own a single park or natural area. Now the elected regional government is the largest owner of parks and natural areas in the metropolitan area — nearly 17,000 acres.

Some properties were handed off to Metro by other governments, but most were purchased with funds from two voter-approved bond measures for the acquisition of natural areas. That’s in keeping with Metro’s Charter, which charges the agency with developing a system of parks and open spaces of metropolitan concern.

But in its push to develop such a system, the Metro Council failed to answer an important question — how to pay for maintaining and improving the properties it acquired? As a result, some of the older parks need repairs and invasive species threaten to overrun some of the open spaces.

The Metro Council placed a new tax measure on the region’s May 21 ballot to begin addressing this oversight. If approved by voters, Measure 26-152 would levy a five-year property tax to collect approximately $50 million over that period for Metro’s parks and open spaces. About $750,000 a year would go to nature projects on other properties in the region.

"Spending money to maintain and enhance these properties is a good move. The costs will only go up if we don't take care of them now," says Mike Wetter, executive director of the Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of businesses, public agencies and nonprofit organizations working to secure financing for regional natural areas.

At first glance, the measure might seem to be an easy sell. The two greenspace acquisition bonds were overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1995 and 2006. And polls conducted by Metro show that more than 60 percent of voters will support the new measure if they understand it will help protect fish and wildlife.

But much has changed over the past seven years. The Great Recession that struck after the last bond measure's passage hit many voters hard in the pocketbook. A voter rebellion in Clackamas County has taken aim at Metro. And mayors throughout the region publicly worried that Metro’s new measure could reduce funds for basic services in their communities. Under Oregon’s property tax limitations, a new Metro property tax levy means less property taxes can be collected by some local governments.

New Clackamas County Chair John Ludlow, who ran on an anti-Metro platform, opposes the levy.

“I would think that Metro would have more important things to do than suck more money from taxpayers,” Ludlow says. “When they got the public to buy these lands, they had to put ‘No Trespassing’ signs so people wouldn’t come and trample wildlife, but that impacted people’s perceptions of these so-called public resources negatively.”

Metro took steps to address such concerns as it prepared the measure.

For starters, the amount is relatively low compared to other tax measures: 9.6 cents per $1,000 of tax- assessed value. That’s less than $20 a year for the owners of a home assessed at $200,000. Projects funded by the levy are spread throughout the region. Most of the money will help restore natural areas and improve existing regional parks.

That last point actually rankles some Metro councilors. Metro has opened three new nature parks to the public in recent years — Cooper Mountain Nature Park near Beaverton, Graham Oaks Nature Park in Wilsonville, and Mt. Talbert Nature Park near Happy Valley. But Metro doesn't plan to open any new nature parks with the levy funds. Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington is unhappy that public access will only be improved slightly to portions of the Chehalem Ridge Natural Area, which is in her district near Forest Grove.

Wetter thinks the measure strikes a good balance between what is affordable and possible.

Metro has already decided where most of the money will be spent.

Proposed sites include about 2,600 acres of forest habitat, nine oak restoration projects, 15 infrastructure improvement projects, and 14 planning and assessment projects related to trails or other public uses.

Beyond that, Metro identified 12 natural areas to restore, six natural areas where public access will be improved, and 12 regional parks to upgrade.

Of the 12 natural areas to be restored, three are in Multnomah County, five in Washington County and four in Clackamas County. Of the six natural areas where public access will be improved, two are in each county.

Nine of the 12 regional park upgrades are in Multnomah County, two in Clackamas County and only one in Washington County. That’s primarily because most of Metro's regional parks were donated in the 1990s by Multnomah County, including Blue Lake and Oxbow parks. The county also transferred its boat ramps, pioneer cemeteries and the Glendoveer Golf Course to Metro.

Metro also plans to devote $750,000 a year to the Nature in Neighborhoods community grant program. That provides funds for nature-related projects on properties Metro doesn’t own. Metro says the program helps fulfill its responsibility to improve neighborhood livability by connecting people with nature.

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