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August 2nd, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Re-Visioning - The City That Wonks

Tired of waiting on the mayor's "visioning" process? Read about WW's efforts to learn what would make Portland a better place.

     
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Vision. Schmizion.

"I don't mean this to be trite," says Michelle Winningham, a marketing consultant and neighborhood activist who lives in outer Southeast Portland. "We should stop spending so much time on visioning. We're supposed be the City that Works, but we're actually more like the City that Works Following an Extensive Review Process."

Winningham isn't alone in her judgment. If WW's recent two-week stretch of interviews with Portlanders is any indication, a growing number are getting antsy with Portland Mayor Tom Potter, who is, to be fair, doing exactly what he said he'd do when he got elected in 2004: asking the rest of us what he and our other elected officials should be doing.

Potter's going to spend more than $1 million of taxpayer money to learn what Portlanders value about their city, what might be done to improve it and what they want Portland to look like in 30 years.

So far, more than 5,000 Portlanders have risen to his challenge. They've offered up their ideas at community meetings, through a traveling 6-foot-8-inch computer terminal known as the Vision Vessel, during an interactive play spoofing The Wizard of Oz, and in an online survey at visionpdx.org, to mention a few venues. Project leaders say they hope to hear from 25,000 residents by summer's end and 100,000 overall.

Last November, Potter appointed a 46-member panel to oversee all this. If all goes according to plan, we'll have a well-rounded vision of Portland's future and a strategic plan for getting there by next spring—more than halfway into Potter's four-year term.

As for Potter's own vision, he'd like to change the form of government in Portland, America's only major city with a commission setup in which the mayor and four city commissioners act as executives by overseeing individual city bureaus.

"You have to ask whether Portland is such a great and unique place because of our form of government or in spite of it," Potter says. "I've concluded it's in spite of it."

Potter says he's awaiting final recommendations from another 26-member committee reviewing Portland's charter before putting that piece of his vision to voters. Call us impatient, or even impertinent, but in our broadband world, waiting for all these review panels after the mayor has been on the job for 18 months feels a little like dial-up. So we asked about 40 of Portland's best and brightest to identify some of the city's biggest deficiencies and offer up solutions.

We had many more responses than we could include. Some pushed nebulously for making school funding stabilization "our top priority," creating more high-paying jobs and rethinking how the city does economic development. Those are important issues we hope the mayor's vision process wrestles with. But we wanted to offer up five concrete ideas that can at least gin up a good argument. We pass them on here to the mayor—and everyone else—for consideration.

Eliminate the Business Income Tax

To some, the idea of eliminating a tax that makes up more than 10 percent of Portland's general-fund budget is crazier than drinking unfiltered water from the Willamette.

But businesses, especially small businesses, say they're leaving Portland or starting up elsewhere because the taxes here are so much higher than in neighboring burgs.

In recent years, for example, Laclede Chain Manufacturing moved to Vancouver, Wash., Cogent IT went to Beaverton, and Ralph Shaw Venture Partners settled in Washington County. Even a City Council candidate, Dave Lister, decided before running unsuccessfully for office in Portland this year to move his four-man software firm from Portland to Tigard, saving $3,500 a year in taxes as a result.

Portland businesses now pay 3.65 percent (2.2 percent to the city and 1.45 percent to Multnomah County) of their income in a local income tax that is unique in Oregon. The city expects to collect more than $43 million from the business tax this year for the city's general fund, which is used for police, fire department, parks and other government functions.

According to a 2005 analysis by Steve Buckstein of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute, Beaverton's business fees are $50 plus a small fee based on the number of employees, Lake Oswego tops out at $145 per year, and Vancouver charges a flat $100 fee.

"The business income tax hurts the business climate in Portland," Buckstein says.

"If the mission is to dis-incent locating in a jurisdiction, a tax on business activity makes a lot of sense," says Bob Wiggins, a venture capitalist with Lake Oswego-based Mount Hood Equity Partners. "To incent business activity, the one thing you wouldn't want to put a tax specifically on is that."

Of course, there's that $43 million hole to fill if the tax gets killed. Buckstein's report suggests outsourcing some city services, based on a model that saved Indianapolis millions.

Then again, maybe we're not doing so badly. The latest figures from the city licenses bureau show a 21 percent increase in the number of businesses filing tax returns from 2000 to 2004.

Make Portland Bars Smoke-Free

Some things just belong together. Chocolate and peanut butter. Ecstasy and Vicks VapoRub. Cigarettes and alcohol.

But in June the U.S. Surgeon General told us the 35,000 Oregonians who work in smoky places—perhaps your favorite bartender among them—are up to 30 percent more likely to get lung cancer and heart disease from the secondhand smoke than if their workplaces were smoke-free.

American Lung Association school tobacco policy coordinator Dana Kaye's conclusion: Portland needs a smoking ban.

The city can't just enact new restrictions, because state law currently excepts bars, including those in restaurants, bowling alleys and bingo halls, from smoking bans. But City Hall could make it a priority for its agenda in the 2007 Legislature. Tobacco opponents also intend to lobby the Legislature again in January. If that fails, they plan to put the issue before voters as Washington did last year, ushering in the nation's strictest smoking ban.

Resistance is sure to be heavy. The politically powerful Oregon Restaurant Association says businesses that cater to adults should be able to give customers what they want. "ORA members with liquor licenses and lottery contacts run a huge financial risk every time a local smoking ban is discussed," the organization's policy statement says.

Turn Portland into Soccer City USA

Portland is ripe to become Soccer City USA the way Nashville is Music City USA, says lawyer, TV host and former City Council candidate Nick Fish.

We have a national champ women's team, the University of Portland Pilots, a large influx of soccer-loving Eastern Europeans and Latinos, a great summer climate, and Nike and Adidas in our back yard.

To become Soccer City, we'd probably need to upgrade fields at our schools and parks, lure a Major League Soccer franchise here to replace the minor-league Portland Timbers (which would require building a new stadium), host a college regional tournament and get buy-in from those sports apparel companies.

Fish may be on to something. When the FIFA Women's World Cup was held here in 2003, it drew 27,600 fans to PGE Park, and the original Timbers in the now-defunct North American Soccer League attracted crowds upwards of 30,000 people three decades ago.

Create 100 Additional Miles of Bike Boulevards

Portland has about 30 miles of bike boulevards—neighborhood streets with traffic-calming devices and stop signs for cross traffic to give bike commuters alternatives to busy thoroughfares. Except for local traffic, cars are discouraged from using them.

Evan Manvel, executive director of Portland's nonprofit Bicycle Transportation Alliance, wants the city to add 100 miles of bike boulevards to encourage bike commuters, invite new bikers who are afraid of traffic and decrease the number of car-bike crashes.

They're especially needed in North and Northeast Portland, he says.

Bike boulevards have the added bonus of making neighborhood streets quieter and safer for children. And, Manvel points out, they don't cost a lot except for traffic signals where they cross major intersections.

"We'd also love to see some bike-only streets if that made sense," Manvel adds.

Congestion Pricing

A few years ago, London's roads got so congested there were only two solutions: more streets or fewer drivers. So in February 2003, London's mayor took the radical step of charging drivers entering the 8-square mile city center eight pounds (more than $14.50 in today's dollars) during peak times.

Bill Scott, general manager of Portland's Flexcar operation, says a similar approach in Portland, perhaps just on the highways, would encourage alternative modes of transportation and raise money for different services from road and bridge repair to building more bike boulevards.

"The automobiles would pay the full price for the infrastructure they use," he says.

The idea would likely be anathema to downtown business owners already fuming about roadblocks that turn shoppers away from downtown toward suburban stores and malls. Their complaints include lack of parking, new higher rates on parking tickets and upcoming bus mall construction.

But supporters of London's plan say it's been successful. The number of cars commuting at peak times fell by a third. While some argued that drivers with low incomes would have a tough time affording the surcharge, fewer cars on the road made the buses run faster, saving on the time-cost of public transit.

There you have it, the results of WW's admittedly truncated "visioning process." Hate 'em? Love 'em?

Got any other ideas? Email vision@wweek.com or post a comment to this story.

 
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