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As Tigard considers bond, levy options, not all councilors on board

Growth of expenses outstripping that of revenues in city.

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Tigard City Councilor Marc Woodard said he is wary of considering a local option levy without an independent audit of the city's spending. As the city mulls a possible facilities bond measure as well, he said he wants a community recreation center to be considered.For years, Tigard city officials have been grappling with a serious problem: Tigard's annual expenses are rising faster than its revenues.

In her budget message for the past two fiscal years, City Manager Marty Wine noted that the services the city of Tigard provides will “erode” if the city continues on its current financial trajectory. Although the city approved a utility fee early this year to maintain and develop parks and recreation, members of the Tigard City Council said at the time it was not an ideal long-term approach.

“The time has come to prepare Tigard for passing a local option levy to supplement our base tax rate,” Wine wrote in her budget message this spring.

On Tuesday, the Tigard City Council discussed the idea of such a levy, as well as a capital bond measure that would allow the city to repair existing facilities, construct new ones or both. However, not all councilors were supportive.

Councilors question whether city spends efficiently

“We go through budget process review, and all I see are numbers. I don't know how we spend our money. I don't know how efficient the work is being done out there in the field,” Councilor Marc Woodard said.

He added, “Right now, I think we're operating ineffectively, and I have a hard time doing anything that has to do with an operations levy ask.”

Woodard said he wants to see a complete and independent performance audit to determine how the city spends the money it takes in before considering a measure to increase property taxes.

Property tax rates in Tigard are among the lowest in the region. Councilors have expressed frustration in the past over the city's limited revenue, and Wine noted in this year's budget message that the city is both growing rapidly and dealing with dwindling staffing levels.

While Woodard championed an audit at Tuesday's meeting, Council President Jason Snider noted that Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, the service district which includes all of Tigard, has advanced data analytics capabilities that help it determine how much it spends on specific functions and the efficiency of its operations.

“I guess I could, in concept, I could support performance audits — but I think a better use of the money, frankly, would be in building our data analytics capability,” Snider said.

He concluded, “I think it's a big deal, and the reason it's a big deal now is because we've got multiple councilors who probably can't support moving forward with a local option levy because they don't have confidence in what's happening.”

Until about five years ago, Tigard's departments had regular biannual audits, Wine told The Times after the meeting, but she said they were focused on “managerial and functional issues, not performance audits.”

Wine also said the council has previously asked her to look at ways to develop a better analytics platform.

“I'm working with staff to determine what that would look like,” she said.

Costs increasing faster than revenues can keep up

While Snider and Councilor John Goodhouse suggested they want to see better accounting of the city's spending, they also agreed that the city is facing financial shortfalls.

“I feel like we spend a lot of time here both making decisions and talking to individuals who want a lot of services and don't want to pay for any of them,” Snider said. “And they don't get the connection between those two things.”

Costs like employee retirement and healthcare benefits are increasing, Goodhouse noted, driving up Tigard's expenses.

“In talking with people in the public, I think this is a great education opportunity,” Goodhouse said. “A lot of people don't, I think, realize that the city does have an eroding budget and the situation that we are in.”

Mayor John L. Cook admitted in January that the parks utility fee was “a bad idea in the long run,” and on Tuesday, he was critical of its “regressive” nature — everyone pays an equal amount regardless of the size of their bill.

Unlike the utility fee, which was adopted unanimously by the council in February, voters would have a say in whether to approve an operating levy.

“The downside of a local option levy is you have to go back every five years and ask the people if they still want it — which isn't really a bad thing, because it's sort of confirming that they agree with what you're giving them,” Cook said. “So I think it's sort of a checks-and-balances kind of idea.”

City officials have been discussing the idea of a local option levy appearing alongside a facilities bond measure on the ballot as soon as November 2017, although Wine noted that the council has not yet made any decisions. Both measures would increase property taxes if approved.

City looks at gathering public input ahead of decisions

The city has contracted with DHM Research to conduct survey work and focus groups to get a better sense of what the public would like to see done with its “civic center,” the campus on which Tigard City Hall and the police station sit along Southwest Hall Boulevard. Wine said that study is separate from the levy discussion.

Tigard voters resoundingly rejected a $34.5 million bond measure to pay for a community recreation center last November. But Councilor Marc Woodard, one of the most active supporters of that measure, has said he wants the city to keep looking at ways to bring some sort of recreation center to Tigard.

“The literature I read doesn't even have 'community center' referred to in it,” he said Tuesday, critiquing the city's civic center visioning study. “It just says 'public works, city administrator, city hall and police.' It doesn't highlight that. … I just get concerned because it's just not out there and up front. I want to make sure that it's part of the discussion.”

Woodard suggested he might not support a facilities bond measure if he does not feel the community center piece has been addressed.

“If it's part of the discussion, I'm OK with it,” he said. “I can live with that. I don't see it, so that's concerning to me.”

The City Council is expected to consider awarding another contract to DHM Research to conduct a public outreach effort to gauge interest in a possible levy option and bond measure later this month, with survey work beginning as soon as this month.

Woodard said he is not sure he will support that contract, worth approximately $150,000, either.

Cook said the council will likely pick up the levy and bond discussion again in November.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the Tigard mayor's critique of the utility fee.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor
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