In Tigard, 'duct tape and bubblegum are gone,' Cook says at forum
As Mayor John L. Cook sees it, there is a lot happening in Tigard's present and future for the city and its partners to address.
This plethora of issues, rather than a singular focus for Tigard, was a running theme in remarks Cook made at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum's weekly lunch meeting Monday, Nov. 27. Another theme was the constraints the city has faced in responding to them all.
"I don't wake up with priorities," Cook said in response to a question toward the end of Monday's forum. "To me, it's whatever the flavor of the day is."
That's because as Tigard's mayor, and one of the five members of its City Council, Cook has to wear a number of hats. He grew up in a household heavily involved with parks and recreation, he noted — Cook Park is named for his father, former Tigard Mayor John E. Cook, for his involvement in the development of Tigard's largest park. In his adult life, the younger Cook chaired Washington County's budget committee and has been active on regional transportation and water issues. He also animatedly described a ride-along with Tigard police that he went on last week, giving him an opportunity to see the way the city's law enforcement personnel do their jobs in person, as well as some of the challenges with which they cope.
All five of those subjects are central issues for Tigard, Cook said. And he suggested that if there's a grouping for all of the issues Tigard faces, based on the public feedback the city has received, it is "public safety."
"The interesting fact about public safety is it's not just the police force," Cook said. "People feel safety as in the trails … (are they) safe to walk on? Is there lighting? Is there potholes in the trails? Are sidewalks connected? Can I get to my neighbors' house? Or the safety of the roads — are they safe to drive on? So the actual term 'safety' can range anything from safe routes to school, which is how you get your kids to walk to school, to the police force. And so we always looked at the term — we, meaning the City Council — 'public safety' as being just the police. But what we've learned from the citizens is they mean public safety (as) a lot more than that."
Next month, Cook and the rest of the City Council are expected to hear a recommendation from a citizen task force that they place a local option levy on the ballot in May 2018. The purpose of the levy would be to raise Tigard's property taxes enough to avoid municipal service cuts — likely including staff layoffs — and enhance existing services to address the needs of a growing population.
Cook said he expects the city will go ahead with seeking a levy that promises to improve public safety as Tigard's residents define it.
"We're at the point now where we're either going to cut services … or we're going to ask for more money," Cook said.
Tigard as Cook noted, has the second-lowest permanent property tax rate in Washington County among cities with a population greater than 5,000, as fixed by the passage of Ballot Measure 50 two decades ago. (Neighboring Tualatin's permanent tax rate is even lower, although it has a larger industrial tax base than Tigard, buoying its total collections.)
"We've done a lot. The budget committee has done a really good job the last 10 years. 2010 and 2012, they had quite a few cuts they had to make, and since then, it's just been holding it together with bubblegum and duct tape. The problem is we ran out of both of them," Cook said, adding in response to another question later, "Squeezing any more out of what we have — the duct tape and bubblegum are gone."
Raising taxes to maintain and improve city services wouldn't be the first politically difficult decision over which Cook has presided as mayor.
Beginning in 2013, Tigard worked in partnership with neighboring Lake Oswego to expand and upgrade several water facilities in the area — including a treatment plant in West Linn — in preparation for drawing on the Clackamas River as the new drinking water source for most of the city. The Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership finally came online last summer. But the project did not come without a cost, as water rates in Tigard surged to pay for that infrastructure.
"Having the reliable water to be able to get from the Clackamas to Tigard was really important to us and our citizens," Cook said. "And yes, doubling the rates was not a very palatable idea for the citizens. … In the long scheme of things, it all makes sense."
Tigard and the rest of the Metro area will face another choice, likely in 2020, over whether to pay for the largest-yet transit investment in Southwest Portland and Tigard. The Southwest Corridor Plan envisions a MAX light rail line from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tualatin, serving parts of Tigard along the way. However, the line could cost close to $3 billion, and both federal and regional funding will likely be needed to pay for it.
"We don't have the state's buy-in on it financially, therefore, the region says they haven't bought in, and the feds haven't come in," Cook said, adding, "Unless those three people are willing to write a check, we won't see it. Luckily, in the past, it's always come true, and so I still feel that the citizens and the government will come through — I just don't know on what timeline."
Tentative plans originally called for a vote on Southwest Corridor funding next year, but policymakers decided to delay it. Metro is now considering asking voters across the region to approve a bond measure for affordable housing projects next fall instead.
On issues like transportation, water and community development, Cook said Tigard has a long-range vision, looking ahead by as much as 50 years or more.
Tigard was burned last decade when it tried to force one of those issues that Cook views in the long term, the mayor noted in response to another question. The city made an unsuccessful push to annex areas of Bull Mountain, west and south of Tigard, that remain unincorporated.
Cook said he thinks all of those unincorporated areas in the Bull Mountain area will "one day" be part of Tigard, but the city is no longer actively trying to annex them, with the exception of "islands" of unincorporated land surrounded on all sides by Tigard city limits that the City Council voted to bring into the city earlier this year. For the rest, Cook said, the city is operating on "more of an 'asking basis' than a 'forcing basis.'"
In the meantime, Cook said, the city has its hands full with ongoing development in the River Terrace neighborhood west of Bull Mountain, as well as urban renewal efforts in downtown Tigard and the Tigard Triangle on the east end of town.
Cook is one in a string of mayors making appearances at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum's lunch meetings this fall. King City Mayor Ken Gibson and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle were guest speakers in recent weeks, while Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway is scheduled to address the forum's next meeting Monday, Dec. 4.
The Washington County Public Affairs Forum holds its events at Golden Valley Brewery and Restaurant, 1520 N.W. Bethany Blvd. in Beaverton. Meetings run from about noon to 1 p.m. Members of the public are welcome to attend, but only members of the organization are permitted to ask questions of the guest speaker during the events.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the frequency of the Washington County Public Affairs Forum's meetings. The forum holds weekly meetings from September through June. The story has been updated.