CITY COUNCIL'S no stranger to tense exchanges these days, so it's always nice to see one avoided.
On April 15, city commissioners were in the midst of a rather dull hearing over fees that developers pay for parks—and how city leaders seem poised to fundamentally alter and increase them—when Commissioner Steve Novick posed a question: Would Commissioner Amanda Fritz, overseer of Portland's parks system, support the same basic deal for roads and sidewalks?
Novick had his people crunch the numbers, he said, and by rejiggering the Portland Bureau of Transportation's charges for new development in the same way Fritz is proposing for parks, PBOT would be looking at a windfall: Developers would kick the city $14,000 for every person served by a new home, as opposed to roughly $2,800 a house. An unrealistic sum.
That money, from so-called "system development charges" could only be used for new infrastructure—not the crumbling streets we've heard so much about in the last year. But it would be money. For transportation.
"I want to ask the commissioner in charge if she'd support that increase," Novick said.
Mayor Charlie Hales laughed and told Fritz she didn't have to answer. Commissioner Nick Fish seemed on the verge of lightheartedly piling on. And Fritz stopped the line of inquiry cold.
"Colleagues," she said, "I'm going to interrupt this conversation."
Everyone chuckled, and the hearing continued. In the end, the matter was pushed off to some vague future hearing date.
But at some point in the weeks to come, council will talk again about this proposal—which changes the underlying formula for how developers of new buildings must pay to account for the demand their projects place on what officials say is a strained parks system. And when that happens, Novick says he won't be so willing to laugh his questions away.
After all, he's spent a hefty piece of his political capital over the last year attempting to convince residents and business owners that a new $46 million "street fee" is absolutely necessary if the city's roads aren't going to fall apart. And he's been halted at nearly every step, finally throwing up his hands for the time being while the Oregon Legislature tries to get Portland more money.
Now—when he looks at a parks bureau fresh off a successful $68 million bond measure last year and with the apparent public support to pass a significant uptick in its development charges—Novick gets rankled.
"When we proposed money for streets, people were very concerned with progressivity," he says. "But then people don't turn the same lens on other ways of raising revenue."
Under the new parks proposal, Novick notes, residents living in a new East Portland apartment would be harder hit by the fee increases than residents downtown. "It's horribly regressive."
And he gets it. The charges Fritz is tweaking have been around for nearly two decades. People are used to them or don't notice them at all. Even the newly passed parks bond didn't increase people's bills. But a new charge for roads? Too new.
"The power of inertia is humongous," Novick says.
So he'll ask the question in the next hearing on the matter—as he's asked Fritz in private, and as he began to ask on April 15: Why is parks the bureau getting priority here?
"The city should look at this holistically, rather than one bureau jumping out and enacting something," he says. "You're basically saying new parks trump everything else."
Which is not to say Fritz's proposal is awful—it's not. It's just not money for roads.
Novick's point: It never is.