Thursday, October 29, 2009

Livability

Bend sells itself on its great “livability” quotient. City promoters tout great restaurants, plentiful shopping, good schools and little traffic.

By any urban standards, Bend doesn’t have much traffic. The city, though, in tandem with the development community, is making sure that traffic becomes congested and downright treacherous throughout the town.

Specifically, the city allows development anywhere without upgrading the infrastructure: roads, water or sewer. Consequently, in spite of the huge boom through the Aughties (2000 to 2007), Bend faces $500 million in urgent infrastructure needs.

Instead of having development pay its fair share for its effect on Bend’s infrastructure, the city had developers pay less than 20 percent for their infrastructure impact on the community. Unfortunately, these nominal impact fees, which are called system development charges (SDCs) in Oregon, are not used for infrastructure upgrades, but rather paying down debt the city has accrued in subsidizing development.

Thanks to the Great Recession, Bend suspended collecting SDCs. The new city council majority, whose 2008 election was bankrolled by the local real estate and builder associations, is determined, against the recommendations of city staff, to eliminate SDCs altogether.

What does this mean? Well, there isn’t likely to be any much-needed road improvements for years. Currently, the city has failed roads on the north end, south end and east side. Reed Market Road, one of the most congested and dangerous roads in Bend, will not see road improvements for another decade even though improvement plans were finalized two years ago.

Thanks to city mishandling of growth along Highway 97 on Bend’s north end, the state has calculated fixing the hazardous gridlocked area to cost between $200 million to $350 million. The 7-mile-long parkway completed earlier this decade cost $120 million.

So, instead of having developers, some of the richest people in the community, help pay for these infrastructure needs, the city is jacking up water/sewer rates and proposing a tax on all citizens to pay for road improvements. In other words, the many will subsidize the few.

In the meantime, the roads will get more congested and more dangerous and the city will do nothing about it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Railroaded

In an effort to allow developers to maximize profits, Bend approved a number of lower end subdivisions along the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe railroad tracks that run the length of the city, north to south. (Some higher end developments also dot the railway area as well as true low-end properties. By and large, they are not members of the power-broker elite in the city.)

And city officials were shocked that citizens had the gall to actually complain about something that they approved of.

Since Bend has done nothing to facilitate east-west traffic in the city, trains must use their horns when passing by the grade-level crossings throughout the city. The horns blow at 5 p.m., at midnight and at 3 in the morning. In fact they blow at ear-splitting decibels all throughout the day.

A citizen calmly asked the city if they could do anything to minimize this aggravating noise and the council said: blow it out your ass.

During this Great Recession, the city has absolutely no money for such luxuries. In fact, it has no money because it continues to subsidize developers, some of the richest people in the community.

If city staff only had telephones, they could pick them up and dial the nearby city of Redmond, which handled this railroad noise annoyance with little fanfare or hardship. They merely installed concrete islands that prevent vehicles from passing the tracks when the crossing guard is down. Consequently, trains don’t need to blow their horns during sleep time and the city is more livable for it.

Why would Bend officials want to make the city more livable?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Higher education in Bend

Central Oregon Community College, Oregon’s oldest community college on Bend’s west side, is seeing a surge in enrollment during “the Great Recession.” Likewise, the college is seeking a $41 million bond measure to add space in Bend and throughout its service district, which encompasses 10,000 square miles in multiple counties. A similar bond measure failed last November, when Bend elected its first Democrat to the state house in decades. The fact that it failed then does not bode well for this vote now.

In the 1982, though, when the region was suffering its worst recession since the “Great Depression,” the COCC district passed a tax base that ensured continued operations.

Still, this recession is potentially worse than the last one. Real unemployment is 20 percent or more throughout the COCC district. The electorate is more grumpy than usual. Yet, Oregon voters have been accustomed to the “double-majority” rule that requires money measures gain 50 percent of the electorate to actually vote and to vote in the majority for the measure. This horrible, anti-democratic measure was passed by voters in the 1990s and it rewards citizens who don’t participate, or vote, in their democracy if they are opposed to a money measure on the ballot. Truly pathetic. But, this COCC bond does not require a double majority because it is a November election, which are exempt from the rule.

So, if the energized pro-bond forces get out the vote, they could get it passed. Unfortunately, the bond is being sold as “jobs, jobs and jobs.” Yes, there will be a few temporary construction jobs. That is why the large, local construction firms are so eager to get it passed. These firms only support local bond measures if they are rewarded with fat contracts when the bond measure passes. And, they usually are rewarded, particularly by the Bend-LaPine School District. It’s paradoxical that these firms, which are normally anti-government, actually survive on the teat of government. Again, pathetic.

So, will the measure pass? Probably not. But, it’s hard to say. Voter turnout is low right now, which favors the pro-bond supporters.

This isn’t the only higher education story in Bend. COCC is trying to generate income by putting in a strip mall on its property along Shevlin Park road.

Apparently, once it is filled with fast-food joints, a Laundromat and perhaps a tattoo parlor, these businesses will be job creators for COCC students. Great, take out loans so you can get a job that any high school dropout can get. Makes no sense.
At the same time, there are some higher education groupies in Bend who have a fetish about seeing a Stanford-type research institution emerge on city property at Juniper Ridge, a business “park” on Bend’s northeast side. This fantasy has no basis in reality other than to give the groupies a sense of purpose. The only “higher ed” institution we’ll ever see at Juniper Ridge is some sort of Bible college, which isn’t exactly what the groupies have in mind, but is what would fit this religious, conservative area. Central Oregon is the most populous area in the country that does not have a four-year institution within 100 miles of it.

Yes, we do have Oregon State University – Cascades, which occupies a building at COCC, but it is largely underfunded because the state’s support of all higher education has cratered in recent decades. OSU-Cascades does serve a purpose, though, and, if the Juniper Ridge groupies had any brains, they would want to see COCC-OSU Cascades evolve into a true four-year institution with research buildings in place of the strip mall.

Education, which so many insist is the key to our survival, is an evolutionary, not revolutionary process, at least in Oregon. But, since so many Americans – Oregonians included -- don’t believe in evolution, they really don’t believe in education. Such is the state of higher education in this underserved section of Oregon.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bend's public safety

Like many homogenous communities, Bend has a relatively low crime rate. This is likely to change as the economy worsens in Central Oregon. The official unemployment rate for Deschutes County is just shy of 16 percent, but factor in the folks who stopped looking for work, and it exceeds 20 percent. That’s 1 in 5 who are out of work. But, the talk of “gangs” in Central Oregon is completely overblown. Yes, there is some graffiti, thanks to the wanna-be gang bangers. The only true gang problem is likely to emanate from Mexico as the meth/marijuana trade travels north.

The Bend Police Dept. knows that the highest crime rate in the city is in the northeast quadrant: north of Highway 20 and east of Highway 97. That’s a wide swath, but dense housing tracts from the early 1990s, that now look worn out, help fuel this statistic. It’s now considered the “working class” area of Bend with more affordable housing than in other areas of Bend.

As for teen drug use, the Bend PD has admitted that while drug use is an issue throughout the community and at all the high schools, serious drug use is more of a problem at Summit High School on Bend’s west side. This isn’t surprising since the west side is the city’s most affluent area, with the greatest number of million dollar homes – or used to be worth a million. The rich are better positioned to shield their kids from the consequences of drug use. Heck, many use drugs themselves.

The real public safety hazard in Bend is found in the dangerous road conditions throughout the city. Unfortunately, the city officials have done nothing to correct these problems or even realize the public safety hazard. Reed Market, from the Parkway east past Third Street, is one of the most dangerous areas in Bend. Likewise, Highway 97 on Bend’s north end is also treacherous, with numerous accidents. There are many others.

The city created these problems by approving developments in these areas without the proper traffic controls – or requiring developers to offset the traffic problems that their developments create. When the city attempts to make the streets safer for traffic and pedestrians, nearby businesses threaten to sue and the city caves in. The result is white-knuckle driving in a city with modest traffic.

Monday, October 19, 2009

More on Bend’s upside -- and slippery slope

Bend’s water supply is one of the purest in the country. Thanks to the generous annual snowpack in the Cascades, experts say the aquifer under Central Oregon is so large it has yet to be quantified.

The plentiful water supply has not prevented the usual battles over water between farmers/ranchers, the outdoor recreational industry, environmentalists and common households.

In the past 20 years, the number of golf courses in the area has doubled. This provides an easy scapegoat in water arguments, but the reality is more complicated. Central Oregon is not a natural agricultural region, yet miles of canals, much of them unlined or unpiped, divert water from the Deschutes River to alfalfa farms where the growing season is less than 90 days per year. While a few miles of the canals are being lined or piped, much of the water, at least 30 percent, is lost to seepage in the porous, volcanic soil.

In Bend, where much of the irrigation water is diverted, the Deschutes River is reduced to a trickle particularly near the ironically named The Riverhouse motel and convention center.

Bend, which gets most of its water from Bridge Creek, more than 10 miles east of town, is facing a number of water problems. Surface water faces far more federal regulations than well water.

Consequently, Bend didn’t plan for the federally-mandated costs of purifying surface water. (In the forcibly-annexed areas of Bend, the households and businesses are served primarily by Avion Water Co., which relies on well water. This water is tastier and has less chlorine than Bend’s water.)

Also, since Bend subsidizes development through low or now non-existent impact fees on water, roads and sewer, the burden for paying for the demands on the water system fall to residential homeowners. In the past 5 years the city has raised its water/sewer rates more than double, and sometimes triple, the rate of inflation. A 1,200-square-foot home with three residents and a small 200-square-foot lawn, can expect an $80 monthly bill in the summertime.

This is only half the problem. Bend is now contributing to the pollution of the water supply. The city has no storm drainage system other than catch-basins which routinely overflow when a half-inch of rain falls in the city. Also, Bend is trying to control sprawl -- a noteworthy goal -- by forcing more housing density in the city limits. This means more roads, driveways, roofs and other surfaces routinely create flooding problems, particularly on the west side. The overspill, most of it polluted, flows east into the Deschutes River.

To pay for flood control, the city unilaterally taxed every household $48 per year. At the same time, it required no developer to pay anything toward flood problems that their developments will cause. Again, the city chooses to subsidize the richest people in the community with the money from everyone else.

On the forcibly annexed southeast side, flooding isn’t the primary problem, though it does exist, particularly on Murphy Road. No, many of the homes are on septic systems, whose resultant nitrates pollute the water supply. The city has made no attempt to put sewer systems in these areas. The city is obviously waiting for the state Dept. of Environmental Quality to put the hammer down and require that homeowners to pay at least $30,000 per household to correct the problem. The city, though, has an estimated $400 billion sewer problem. Again, since it approved almost every single development no matter what the impact on water, sewer or roads, Bend allowed sewage pumping stations throughout the newly-developed areas of the city served by the sewers. Electrical outages have caused a number of sewage backup problems in various areas of the city that have these electronically-controlled pumping stations. Lawsuits followed.

So, Bend is polluting itself in one of the most pristine areas of the country. It’s mind-boggling that this could happen, but this has happened in every single urban area of the country, and in some rural areas, too. We never learn, even when we think we do.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bend's upside

The best things about Bend, to name just two, are its fresh air and clean water. Not even Mastercard can put a price on these. For those who live in major urban areas and believe you have these two priceless necessities of life, visit Bend. Of course, we don't have fresh air when an inversion hits in December while folks are stoking their wood stoves or during August when wildfires make Central Oregon's skies mimic Los Angeles' smog. But, most of the time, the air is wonderfully clear and the Cascade Range feels so close you could reach out and touch Mount Bachelor and the Three Sisters.

So, you would think a ban on burning yard debris would gain unanimous support from our city council. Not so. Thankfully, four of the seven councilors voted, in August, to ban the burning of yard debris within city limits. This amazing act allowed Bend to join the 20th Century just 9 years into the 21st Century.

Those who voted against the ban and for filthy air, not to mention potential wildfires, were: Mayor Kathie Eckman, former mayor Oran Teater and newcomer Jeff Eager. These three, while nobly serving their city for a modest monthly stipend, paradoxically sympathize more with the anti-government tea-baggers. They don't see that Bend's air is worth protecting. Afterall, what's freedom mean if you don't have the freedom to burn your own pine needles in your own backyard. It reminds me of some those featured in Ken Burns' recent documentary on the National Parks who didn't believe places like Yellowstone or Yosemite were worth saving from development and exploitation.

In the 1980s, Bend allowed torching household trash in burn barrels. Talk about toxic waste. Thank god those days are gone.

The city faces pressure to preserve its great water. That's a subject for another post.