From the July 10 edition of Street Roots
From his corner office on the sixth floor of the Multnomah County building, County Chairman Ted Wheeler has a panoramic view of a lot of money; looking west is downtown Portland and the Pearl District, and looking north, the Interstate corridor and the Northeast renaissance. The city grows all around him.
Which makes dealing with a $46 million budget shortfall all the more bitter.
For the ninth year in a row, Multnomah County has been defunding — cutting public safety and health services — in order to adjust to a regressive tax formula for urban renewal.
Do not avert your eyes. Yes, the subjects of urban renewal areas and tax increment financing make for a powerful sedative, but they have begun to light fires under politicians’ and taxpayers’ feet. They are workhorses in local development plans, including a 30 percent dedication of those funds toward affordable housing. It’s how tax dollars move in this town, for better or worse.
The urban renewal construct – which draws an increment of property tax dollars as a funding incentive for projects in “blighted” areas — most recently flared up over the Major League Soccer deal. That proposal sought to draw urban renewal funds to build a minor league baseball stadium in Lents. It was later withdrawn, with Wheeler being the stony messenger decrying the use of such funds for such a project, and the consequences in depleting a property tax base that suports education, health care and safety programs in the most populated county in Oregon.
Joanne Zuhl: In your opinion, do you think the city has responsibly used urban renewal areas to this point?
Ted Wheeler: I support urban development, I support job creation, I support the creation of urban renewal areas around truly blighted areas that would not be developed but for the investment of tax increment financing in those areas. I’m fundamentally opposed to the improper use of tax increment financing. If you invested in an area that is not truly blighted, you’re simply taking dollars away from a jurisdiction that would be providing important community services, whether it’s education, basic health, or basic human services.
J.Z.: On those criteria, how has the city performed?
T.W.: I think it has been a mixed bag, to be honest. It’s not just the city. I don’t think the county has been paying attention either, historically. We have not been good advocates for our basic services, nor have we made a clear statement to the community about the real trade offs that exist between creating new urban renewal areas and our ability to deliver basic health and safety services in this community.
I’m interested in the business at hand — which is whether we should create new urban renewal areas and whether we should expand existing ones.
What I want to do is drive into that conversation this very important issue of the trade off between existing services and the projects in urban renewal areas. My concern has been that because the county and the school districts have been asleep at the switch, and because the City Council has had this powerful tool, tax increment financing, available to it with virtually no oversight, they’ve used it as an ATM for projects that are important to the City Council but aren’t necessarily a top priority to the citizens of this community.
Tax increment financing (TIF) is easy money, and it shouldn’t be easy money. It should be the dollars of last resort. There are other ways you can fund projects, whether it’s debt, whether it’s an economic enterprise zone, whether it’s going out and finding private-sector investors. You should only use TIF in the case where there couldn’t be any other development but for the TIF dollars.
J.Z.: Do we really have areas of such blight – that we need urban renewal incentives?
T.W.: The legal definition of blight is wishy-washy, so that almost any neighborhood in this city could be described as blighted. Blight includes surfaced parking lots, improper developments that were mistakes that were made previously. Continue reading