Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen is sick of the Portland Development Commission and City Council making decisions that end up siphoning money from the cash-strapped county.
Many know about the PDC's PR snafus. Whether it's financing condos in the Pearl or spending $6.6 million on private parking in South Waterfront (see "Parking on a Platter," WW , Oct. 17, 2007), the development agency that oversees 11 urban renewal areas has repeatedly opened itself to charges of gaming urban renewal schemes to benefit the wealthy.
But Cogen is targeting the less-visible twist to city-led urban renewal, one that many taxpayers don't realize. The premise of creating an urban renewal district—keeping property tax revenues in the district during the district's life—sucks about $16 million out of Multnomah County's annual general fund budget, according to Cogen.
That's money that could go to saving endangered county programs like the after-school SUN Schools, reopening a sub-acute treatment center for mental health crises or jump-starting Wapato Jail. Yet the county has never had a say in deciding where to create urban renewal areas, how much debt those areas should incur or how long they should last.
The City Council makes those decisions. And because urban renewal money can be used only for construction (more the city's function than the county's), the city typically benefits from those projects. Meanwhile, the county's social services budget takes the $16 million hit, Cogen says.
"Urban renewal is not working for a large part of this community," says Cogen, a former chief of staff to City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. "It's taking away from social services. Frankly, it's taking away from poor people."
On Tuesday, Dec. 18, Cogen introduced a plan at the PDC's Urban Renewal Advisory Group that would require the county to agree on forming new urban renewal areas or extending existing ones.
Cogen wants to give the proposal teeth. Here's how: Currently, 28 cents of every urban-renewal dollar comes out of the county's taxes. In the future Cogen wants the county to get 75 percent of that money if it doesn't agree to an urban-renewal decision.
PDC spokesman Shawn Uhlman declined to discuss how Cogen's proposal might affect PDC operations.
The proposal would require approval by the county board and City Council. Unsurprisingly, Cogen says all the county commissioners are on board.
Over at City Hall, he needs one more vote for a majority on the five-member council. Commissioners Saltzman and Erik Sten say they'll vote for it. Commissioner Sam Adams' office declined to comment, and Mayor Tom Potter's staff said he needs more information.
Commissioner Randy Leonard is highly critical of Cogen's plan, saying it's the first he's heard of it. "It's probably not a good way to start out when you're overly secretive," Leonard says.
Leonard also slammed the county for crying poor after reducing its business income tax, and adds that the point of urban renewal is to save blighted areas and increase property-tax revenues for everyone in the long term.
"You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip," Leonard says.
Cogen's PDC proposal has two other prongs. One is a request that the city allow existing urban renewal areas to expire when scheduled, rather than extending them indefinitely. The other is to expand the existing River District (essentially the Pearl) this year to include the county-owned Mead and McCoy buildings downtown. Cogen wants to use urban renewal money to fix those buildings and sell them off, then buy the county another building downtown to consolidate its services there.