Making the public private, courtesy Neil Goldschmidt, Inc.

by Steve, December 6th, 2015

Merry Christmas kids!

At times like these, all I can think about is Fred Leonhardt, once the risen star of political speech-writing in Oregon, and how his career was destroyed by the still-powerful politico-corporate network of child-rapist Neil Goldschmidt. So I dedicate this to Fred and to his family, and all they’ve sacrificed to support Fred’s righteous bravery. (Here’s Nancy’s take.)

Oregon’s Port of Portland and its unique Metro regional government have long been known as warrens of sinecures for ex-Goldschmidt operatives, along with executive positions at private corps like NW Natural and Nike.

Goldschmidt is still praised by many for his civic mindedness, primarily the prioritization of rail over highways. I appreciate that, and benefit from it. (But as a daily user of regional rail transit, I can tell you Portland’s system has proven poorly designed, with many choke points, inefficient routes, and inadequate capacity, especially during any kind of weather. But I digress.) The point is, Goldschmidt’s legacy hasn’t actually been all that beneficial for the public. To the contrary. I would argue that in addition to child rape, patronage and enlarging the public trough have been his enduring legacy.

Now comes Christmas in Portland, prime season for the privatization of public space. As soon as they lit the big tree, it and the entirety of Portland’s Fucking Living Room (Pioneer Courthouse Square) is cordoned off for a privately-organized, for-admission, 21-and-over booze fest. For a week. Merry Christmas, kids! Come back next week after we’ve hauled off the drunks, taken down the tents and hosed off the bricks! To be fair, I don’t know of a Goldschmidt/booze fest connection. But the Metro/Oregon Zoo connections are long-standing and well-known.

Last week, the Oregon Zoo announced that, in an effort to thin crowds, ticket prices are going up. Yay! Fewer poor people to have to stand in line with. Not sure why the Zoo can’t figure out how to, I don’t know, sell timed tickets like every museum that ever hosted a popular exhibit. Better yet, make it free, and have a lottery for available time slots. Our taxes are paying for it, so why should we pay twice? Oh, that’s right, so Metro can continue to host six-figure jobs for the Goldschmidt network.

And who’s quoted in the O, pimpin’ the price hike? None other than Krista Swan, who’s never been shy about her public adoration of “the man” Neil Goldschmidt.

“It should be a magical, fun experience,” said Swan. For those who can spare 50 or 100 bucks to take their families to see lighted cages. (I know, I know, they don’t actually light the cages. But the whole place is a damn cage.)

It’s naked elitism. They don’t give a fuck. I kind of admire the chutzpah it takes to say “screw you” to the people paying your salary and totally get a way with it. But I literally feel sickened by this.

My long-term, ongoing revulsion of zoos was recently enhanced by a $125 million zoo bond that was supposed to provide a large, off-exhibit elephant sanctuary for surviving victims of the zoo’s shameful captive breeding and exhibition program. As a pioneering captive elephant breeder (and one of few remaining), the Oregon Zoo has long used elephants as the face of its marketing campaigns. At some point after the bond was passed, the zoo decided they were going to spend that public money on exhibit space, and maybe think about a sanctuary some time in the future. Let’s not kid ourselves; the improved exhibit space is designed as an improvement for ticket-buying human spectators, not elephants.

The zoo has launched a massive outdoor media campaign promoting the new exhibit. The over-sized billboard hung from the side of the O Dock grain elevator in the Rose Quarter reminds me of Portland past, where there were industrial jobs that paid enough for a family to survive and buy a house. Now their tax dollars are paying to advertise the offensive, unethical exhibition of elephants they probably can’t afford a ticket to see.

I really hate the zoo. It’s a publicly-funded, commercial entertainment enterprise that is cruel to animals and increasingly off-limits to working people. At this point, I would be in favor of full privatization (with fair market price for the land and facilities). And we should legislate an end to captive breeding of elephants. End of story.

This is a salient piece of the Goldschmidt story: how he created an elite and powerful network that survived his rape of a child, and continues to make public policy decisions largely for their own benefit, paid for by working people.

Update, 2:50 pm

Poor Krista thinks we’re picking on her.
swan1
Also, we don’t get it! It’s actually cheaper for the masses if they pack in on poor people nights! And she can’t be elitist, she scrubs baseboards with a toothbrush! (?)

And we must be living in the past to continue pointing out Goldschmidt’s nefarious influence. Also, we might need therapy.

swan2

Here’s a public official, complaining about hearing from her constituents. I’m afraid it’s Krista who doesn’t understand how public debates about public policy regarding public spaces are supposed to work.

Wait, listen carefully….

by Steve, February 6th, 2015

That’s the sound of Oregon’s Democratic Party faithful discussing the stench of corruption oozing out of Mahonia Hall.

It’s looking more and more like Oregon’s fourth-term governor John Kitzhaber has been up to his neck in his fiance Cylvia Hayes’s influence peddling, and the political hacks and bottom feeders at Blue Oregon have apparently circled the wagons.

Here’s the thing about being a one-party state… I mean… Ah fuck it, didn’t you guys read Animal Farm?

The Democratic Party in this state is a disgrace. A patronage machine that’s done nothing to reform a revenue system devastated by fleeting anti-tax, libertarian fringe in the 90s, and apparently more interested in holding power than funding schools. Sure they’re nominally pro-labor, but that’s all about the money at the end of the day. What does the Democratic Party of Oregon offer working families besides not being Republicans? Not a hell of a lot.

I argue that we need a moderate, viable GOP in this state just to keep the Democratic Party honest and at least nominally progressive. As it stands we have an allegedly corrupt governor and decades of Democratic control of state government with no progress on revenue reform. If state-level Democrats aren’t willing to take a stand for education funding, what good are they?

In other words, what’s the use of a Blue Oregon if we’re all just being played?

Update 2/9/2015:

Kitzhaber has asked his buddy Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon’s attorney general, to investigate. Pulitzer winner Nigel Jaquiss reports in Willamette Week that this might just be a move to delay releasing documents to the press. And of course Willamette Week is owned in part by…. wait for it…. Ellen Rosenblum’s husband Richard Meeker.

Jesus, way to make us look like a fetid little backwater, guys.

Oh the places you’ll go

by Steve, December 18th, 2014

pinthehatonthecathatsIn 1999 I finished an associate degree at Portland Community College, and Nancy talked me into doing the commencement ceremony at the old Memorial Coliseum. The speaker was an up-and-coming local politician who condescended to the assembled hoi polloi by donning a red and white stripedy top hat and reading from Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the places you’ll go! (By the way, the stripedy top hat is from a different Dr. Seuss story. Just sayin.)

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to great places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own, and you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

I think she preceded the reading with a heart-warming story about a woman who overcame her addiction and completed a program at PCC or something. Look, PCC is a community college, not a rehab program. Sure, there are some feel-good stories about people turning their tragic lives around, but primarily it’s working class people of all ages getting a basic post-secondary education. I’m sure she was just trying to be ironic and cute, but I’m not the only one who detected a generous whiff of elitist paternalism.

We’ve joked about this pol’s failure to connect over the years. Whenever her name comes up we say, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” She married the scion of a deeply connected construction baron and later left local government in 2007. Last year she became the head of a local non-profit foundation which we’ve happily supported over the past few years.

When you give money to non-profits, their development staff become your best friends every December thereafter. (I always tell these guys they don’t have to kiss my butt, and politely decline all the perks and galas and wine buses and behind-the-scenes tours offered.)

The other day we got a voice mail message on the home phone, not from the development director, but from my erstwhile commencement speaker herself. Her unctuous tone was markedly different from her speech 15 years ago. She left her cell and office numbers. (I didn’t call her back.)

Oh.

The places you’ll go.

NOTE: That call left me conflicted like crazy. This has been one of our favorite causes over the years, and I don’t want to cast aspersions on their incredibly valuable work (which is why I’m not using names here; if you know Oregon politics, you already know who I’m talking about). We directed some money their way last year, and we’ll no doubt support them again in the future.

Why I wish telecoms were more like the DMV

by Steve, October 20th, 2014

phonemessI’ve recently had some “fun” switching around our telecom service, mobile and home-based. I’ve also had some experience at the state DMV/DEQ, which offers and interesting contrast.

(Side note: I also recently switched to hosting our blogs in the cloud, and switched our business Internet service to consumer, since I am no longer hosting servers at home. But that’s a whole other story.)

The big, bad bureaucracy

First, let’s talk about how things work at the DMV. If you live in Oregon’s Portland metro area, you have to get your vehicle’s emissions systems checked by Oregon DEQ every two years in order to renew your registration. It’s pretty straight forward.

  • DMV sends you a renewal notice
  • You take this notice to one of several DEQ “Clean Air Stations” (this is funny, because it’s probably some of the dirtiest air around, what with all those vehicles idling while waiting and getting checked)
  • An attendant will check that you have the correct paperwork, then direct you to a lane
  • There is a large blue street sign on the building at each lane that clearly tells you how much you are paying for the emissions check: $21.
  • Once in a test bay, the testing tech will ask you to leave your car running, and direct you to an enclosed room where you can fill in your insurance information while the tech hooks up your car to the computer.
  • After a few minutes, you are finished, and you pay both the DEQ fee and your DMV renewal fee (in a single transaction), receive your DEQ report, new tags and registration, and head on your way.

I don’t know why people like to bitch about government bureaucracy; this most common interaction with not one but two massive state agencies takes all of 15 minutes every two years.

Anyway, let’s talk about telecoms.

You still have a land line?

Several years ago we switched our land line phone (remember those? We still have one!) from Qwest (now CenturyLink) to Vonage, a voice over IP (VoIP) provider. It seemed like a great deal; $15 a month with unlimited domestic long distance (this was at a time when Qwest still charged for long distance).But after a couple years I noticed the price had jacked up to $25. I remember trying to shave that down by a dollar a month by switching plans, only to find after making the switch that Vonage charged me $10 for changing plans. Pretty soon we were paying around $35 a month for service, after they tacked on close to $10 in various “taxes and fees.”

A coworker suggested checking out Ooma, another VoIP provider, which boasts “free” local service. The deal is you buy the box for $150 (Vonage gives you a box if you sign up for a 2-year contract), then just pay taxes and fees on a monthly basis. This is how I discovered that Vonage not only was overcharging for their basic service, they were also robbing us about six bucks a month on fees. We now pay $3.79 a month for our land line. Period. Quality of service? Same. There are a couple features we gave up from Vonage (emailed voice mail, etc.), but we can get those back for another $10 a month from Ooma if we want, and still save $20 over Vonage.

Shortly after the switch, Vonage had the chutzpah to send an email begging us to come back, offering a $10 discount per month for two years. Ha ha!

OK, so maybe the free market is working, right? Wrong. The deal is that it’s incredibly difficult to compare these two services, even though they are basically the same. Their pricing structures are so different, and the marketplace is so cluttered with unrelated technology that seems similar (but totally is not), it is virtually impossible for somebody like, say, your mother, to figure this shit out and not get robbed by some bastard company claiming your taxes and fees are $10 a month. Or the cable company that convinces you you need a land line to go with your TV and internet, because it’s somehow cheaper when you pay more.

Anyway, we got the land line sorted out, and even got to keep our number that we had originally ported from Qwest to Vonage. That’s how we’re still rocking that North Portland exchange out in the burbs.

Bite me, T-Mobile

So, how about mobile service?

Oh, let me tell you a tale, involving three service providers and one federal regulator who intervened on my behalf.

Way back when, my lovely wife declared she needed a cell phone. I scoffed. I resisted. But eventually I gave in. I searched high and low for the best deal, eventually settling on Qwest for a $30/month plan. This was a great deal. Until we went over on minutes, which was highway robbery. So we switched to Sprint. They had a flex pricing plan, which just bumped you to the next level if you went over minutes. This was pretty good. I eventually got a phone on that plan, too.  In the end we had five phones on that plan, and we were paying about $160 a month for 700 shared minutes, unlimited text, and a 2G data plan on one feature phone. Too much, considering there was not a smartphone in the lot.

When my daughter and I got smartphones last year, we dropped two lines from Sprint, and found the best deal on a data plan around (or so it seemed). T-Mobile has a prepaid plan with unlimited text and data (speeds capped after the first 5GB of 4G/LTE) and 100 minutes of talk time for $30 a month.

A word about mobile prepaid: These plans are set up for people with bad credit, mainly. You pay for your service in advance, instead of after a month, as is traditional. There are no contracts, so if you have your own phone, it’s an easy short-term thing to do. We don’t have bad credit, but the post-paid plans did not have this kind of deal on data. So we signed up.

When you set up your prepaid account, you pay for your first month of service. You can also deposit some additional money on account to pay for any overages on talk time. And you can set up this account to deduct from your debit card on a monthly basis and pay for the next month of service.  Pretty convenient, and what could go wrong? (Oh, just wait for it.)

Anyway, we had that service for about a year, and it worked fine except when it didn’t. (T-Mobile coverage is crap, in case you didn’t know.) I paid for a few extra minutes of talk time here and there, but nothing serious. We were getting more mobile data than we could use for two phones at $60 a month.

This year, the contracts on our three remaining Sprint lines expired, and we prepared to move everybody, in one fell swoop, to AT&T. I knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, but as is my practice, I thoroughly researched everything and got all my ducks in a row before proceeding.

I bought a few unlocked phones, and took everything down to the AT&T store at the mall. This was on THE DAY that the iPhone 6 was released, so it was pretty funny to pass the hordes lined up at the Apple store on the way to the AT&T store (where they had about four linear feet of wall space dedicated to the lackluster new iPhones, opposite a dazzling display of LG phones and phablets).

We had to wait a little bit to get served. Once in, it was pretty straight forward, since I knew exactly what I wanted, and already owned the devices. It took a while, but we got all five numbers ported. Well, mostly. Major props to Allan at the Washington Square AT&T store, who was helpful all the way.

It turns out the T-Mobile numbers didn’t exactly port.

The next day, I called AT&T customer support. They said they needed the PINs for the T-Mobile accounts. I told them I never set up PINs for those accounts, and I had provided the passwords. The AT&T rep conferenced in a T-Mobile rep, who seemed a bit confused by what was going on. It took him a while, but after answering some security questions, he let me set the PIN to 1-2-3-4. Ten minutes later, the numbers were ported.

Whew! Now, I had the foresight to stop the monthly auto-deduct on the T-Mobile accounts. I left about $100 on  account in case the port took longer than it did (numbers can’t be ported if the account isn’t active, and prepaid accounts are suspended immediately if not paid up). Now that the port was complete, I thought I’d log in to T-Mobile and see about getting that dough back.

But my accounts were gone. There was no way to log in from the Web.

I called customer service. This did not go well. First, after punching in one of my numbers, the automated system informed me that the account was in collections for nonpayment. I hit “0″ and eventually got a live voice. I talked to a few people, got transferred several times, and after waiting on hold got a guy who told me that prepaid services are not refundable.

I patiently explained that I was not asking for a refund for a prepaid service, I was asking for the cash I had on account to be refunded. He again repeated that prepaid services are not refundable. I pressed him. Eventually he said, OK, you can get your money back, but you have to go to a T-Mobile store.

Are you fucking kidding me? “What do I need to show them to get my money?” I asked. “Just the card you used to pay,” he said.

OK, fine, sounds dubious, but I drove my ass to the nearest T-Mobile store. It’s a weekday, this can’t be too bad, I thought.

It was pretty bad. It was a small store, and all four staff members were busy with customers. I waited patiently for probably 20 minutes. Finally a staff member was available, and she proceeded to inform me that prepaid services are not refundable.

I patiently explained that I was not asking for a refund for prepaid services, but for the money I placed on account to pay for future prepaid services before I ported my numbers out.

“Oh, you ported your numbers out,” she said, and explained that prepaid services are not refundable, especially, apparently, if you port your numbers out. By this point I was getting pretty pissed off, and really didn’t want to make a scene. (Actually, I might have made a little bit of a scene, but I’m pretty sure I said “B.S.” and not “bullshit”, because there were children present after all.)

“So,” I said, “I have to file a complaint to get my money back?”

“OK,” she said, deflecting me out the front door. (I’ve done customer service, so I understand the difficulty of dealing with pissed off people. She handled me like a champ.)

By now I’d blown probably a couple hours trying to get $100 back. Time is money, but principle is principle. That’s what this was coming down to.

I spent some more time searching the Web, trying to figure out how to proceed. I found lots of stories of being transferred and dropped on the customer service line, with nobody reporting any luck. Surely this couldn’t be legal, even if I did “agree” to terms of service which may or may not have spelled out that any money I deposit with them for future service would be confiscated if I chose to discontinue their service.

All of my T-Mobile love had turned to hatred and rage at this point. Their Web site, which I tolerated before, now was a maddening maze. The only options for customer service are Web forums (no account; no access!) and phone, which I’d already struck out on. No email contact, or even a Web form to submit queries. Just a USPS address. I imagined carts of paper mail in a warehouse somewhere gathering dust, and a couple underpaid office drones tasked with opening a few letters each day and sending out form letter responses.

Feds to the rescue

So I filed an online complaint with the FCC. That’s right, Fuck ’em. I sicced the feds on their thieving asses. I honestly did not expect anything to come of this. I figured I’d just write the whole episode off as a hard-learned lesson, and maybe provide T-Mobile with $100 worth of negative publicity along the way.

Two weeks later, I got a call from a passably contrite T-Mobile rep saying they she had a letter from the FCC, and even though my terms of service said that prepaid services are not refundable, they were going to send me a refund and just needed my address.

Her tone was notably straight-forward. Even though T-Mobile was not going to acknowledge they were in the wrong, they were going to give me back my money. And they weren’t going to transfer me, drop my call, or send me to a retail store.

I resisted the urge to explain to her that I was not asking for a refund of prepaid services. After all, it appeared I had won. It took more than a few hours of my life, but I was successful in prying my money back from a company that had attempted to steal it from me under cover of a murky customer agreement and a prepaid system designed to prey on poor people.

A week after the call, I got a copy of the letter T-Mobile sent back to the feds, explaining to the Acting Chief of Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, that I had signed an agreement acknowledging that prepaid services are not refundable.

“Nevertheless,” the letter continued, “in an effort to amicably resolve this matter… T-Mobile agreed to refund $100.00″ to me.

The day after that I got a prepaid MasterCard worth $100 in the mail, so I didn’t feel obligated to give T-Mobile $100 worth of bad publicity after all. (Oh, wait, too late.)

There you have it. Once again, the invisible hand of the free market works great! (But only with a slap from the very visible hand of federal regulators.)

We left Sprint, on the other hand, with a balance due, and they decided to threaten us with collections or disruption of service(!) if we didn’t pay up immediately. (Phone number portability is something telecoms are required to facilitate, but they really don’t seem to like it very much when they’re on the losing end of it). We were at least able to log in to the Sprint Web site to take care of their final bill.

So why didn’t I stay with Sprint? Their network isn’t compatible with our phones. Why didn’t I stick with T-Mobile? Their coverage sucks. (Also, ahem, it turns out they have some questionable business ethics.) Why didn’t I go with Verizon? They support some of our phones, but not others. Why don’t I just let the cell providers gouge me for “free” phones that actually cost $20+ a month? Because I don’t want my phone to be locked to one provider, and I sure as hell never want to sign up for a two-year contract with any telecom ever again.

It’s a damn jungle out there, that’s what it is. And the people getting screwed over the most are poor people on prepaid plans, and people who don’t have the tech savvy to compare plans from different providers and tease out costs of phones vs. costs of service, etc.

This is why I want telecoms to be like the DMV. I don’t want to spend hours doing cost analysis. I don’t want fancy mall stores with mood lighting and big graphics and solicitous sales clerks. I don’t want bullshit contracts and terms of service with hidden clauses. I don’t want to compare apples to oranges. And I sure as hell don’t want some unscrupulous behemoth of a telecom literally trying to steal my money.

I just want a drab facility in a run-down strip mall with a unionized workforce hooking me up with what I need, nothing more, nothing less.

I want a big blue sign on the wall that says: “Mobile Broadband: $30. Take a number. Please have forms filled out and documents ready.”

What is Portland’s most Awesome!-ist Web site?

by Steve, June 19th, 2012

Portland may have a shortage of affordable housing, family wage jobs, diversity, good public schools and trustworthy leadership, but there is one thing in ample supply: enthusiasm about how great Portland is. There are any number of white people with blogs who want to tell you all about it!

So, herewith is our list of Portland’s Top Ten Most Awesome!est Web Sites! (As measured by Google hits on the word “awesome.” See, Portland also seems to have a shortage of thesauri.)*

Number 10: Byron Beck is beyond Awesome! (and he probably owns a thesaurus); consequently he barely tips the meter with 203 Awesome!s.

Number 9: Food Carts Portland suffers an unexpected dearth of Awesome!ness with only 283 Awesome!s. (We think this might be a technical problem with Google.) This site is self-described as “an ode to Portland’s food carts,” with a focus on the “positive,” though “we will always be honest in my findings.” (We try to be honest with my findings, too, even when they don’t support our preconceived notions.)

Number 8: You wouldn’t expect grouchy megalomaniac blogger BoJack to score high on the Awesome! scale, but you might be surprised. Maybe it’s by sheer volume, but in his approximately 36 years of tossing out red meat for libertarian gubmint haters, he and his followers managed a respectable 526 Awesome!s. (There used to be a blog called “Portland’s Future Awesome!” that was a direct response to BoJack’s crankiness, but I think they ran out of exclamation points and had to shut down!)

Number 7: Willamette Week scores a middling 663 Awesome! points.

Number 6: The shameless political bottom feeders at Blue Oregon clock in with 807 on the Awesome! scale. You might think it would be higher, what with their shilling for paid clients and all. But then they try so hard to be taken seriously. (Erstwhile wannabe BO competitor Loaded Orygun shut down and nobody noticed, so we can’t even do a query there.)

Number 5: Silicon Florist is a continual gush about how cool the Web and mobile app startup scene is in Portland (never mind the thousands of engineers working at Intel and Tektronix and the like in the actual Silicon Forest), so you’d think they’d score higher than 853 Awesome!s.

Number 4: Urban Honking, the Portland blog nobody ever heard of that once hosted a lame sycophantic blog nobody read called Portland’s Future Awesome!, takes it to the next level with 2,500 Awesome! points.

Number 3: The party rockers at PDX Pipeline up the Awesome! with 5020.

Number 2: The alt weekly Portland Mercury serves the hipster demographic, so it’s hard to know what to expect. On the one hand, they try to come off as jaded. But they also like to appear ironic. Despite that, they’re some of the biggest suckers when it comes to gentrification polices shrouded in the Awesome!ness of sustainability, bikes, pop music, fashion, public nudity or gayness (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The results? A whole next next level with 27,000 on the Awesome! scale!

But what’s the singular, most incredibly Awesome!est Web site on the scene?

Portland, I give you the inspiration for this whole ridiculous Awesome! exercise…

Number 1: Bike Portland, with an Awesome! 52,500 Awesome! points. How can Bike Portland beat the closest contender by a nearly two-to-one margin of Awesome!? We don’t know… Maybe because everything is Awesome! when your majority white male demographic wields out-sized policy influence at City Hall. (Now listen, take it easy, I’ve been a white male Portland metro bike commuter since I moved here in 1989.)

Disclaimer: This study is non-scientific. Actual Awesome!ness may vary. Some Awesome! sites we’ve never heard of were probably omitted. Our own Portland blog, which nobody reads, was never even in the running, with a mere 52 on the Awesome! scale (not counting this post, which still wouldn’t put us in the running). The only people who will read this post are my wife and people with Google alerts set up for mentions of their Awesome! Web sites. Yeah, that’s right, I’m looking at you.

Why Beaverton should support BSD

by Steve, May 16th, 2012

schoolsWith the independent Beaverton School District facing cuts of 344 teachers and five school days, budget committee member Susan Greenberg suggested asking the City of Beaverton to help out.

It’s a tough time to be asking for money from anybody, but here’s why Beaverton should say yes.

Beaverton’s recently approved urban renewal district will siphon $150 million (plus interest) of property tax revenue away from schools, county services, parks and public safety. About 40% of that –$60 million — would otherwise go to education, but will instead go to benefit businesses in the downtown core of Beaverton.

(Through a complex quirk in Oregon’s broken school funding system, property tax revenue collected on behalf of local school districts is remitted to the state’s central education fund, then doled back to local districts on a per-student basis. This was the logic the school district used when approving the UR district; most of the revenue loss is spread out across the entire state. But this doesn’t change the fact that the city of Beaverton is diverting some $60 million of Oregon education money for the benefit of a small number of business owners.)

The city of Portland has used and abused urban renewal extensively over many years, but they have also helped out the school districts in Portland from time to time. Most recently, Portland struck a deal to pump some $5 million into Portland Public Schools to stave off cuts there.

Beaverton School District is facing much deeper cuts than Portland because they’ve used reserves to stave them off longer. Obviously the city of Beaverton isn’t going to pony up $37 million. But they could at least offer something — anything — to help lessen the blow to our children. Beaverton schools are, after all, the main reason families move to Beaverton (and not, say, Portland proper, or Gresham). They’re not moving here for the “downtown core,” I can assure you of that, and a $150 million facelift there isn’t going to change that.

So how about it, Denny Doyle and crew? A little help?

Local Blight

by Steve, February 20th, 2012

We’re surrounded by bank-owned and short sale houses, but I haven’t seen one of these yet. Sign by We Are Oregon. Photo by Doug Geisler, used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.

Vote “NO” on Beaverton’s urban renewal measure (if you can)

by Steve, October 25th, 2011

election08I don’t get to vote on Beaverton’s urban renewal ballot measure, 34-192, which is part of the reason I think it should be defeated.

The City of Beaverton, which comprises only a small part of greater Beaverton, wants to siphon off 30 years worth of incremental tax revenue growth, to the tune of $150 million (plus interest) to pay for transportation projects and unspecified direct investment in commercial real estate development.

To understand why this is wrong, you have to understand the rather complex structure of government in Washington County. We have overlaid tax districts here, which provide many of the basic services you might normally expect from a municipal government. Since a large portion of greater Beaverton is unincorporated, most of these overlaid districts provide services to both Beaverton residents and non-residents alike.

The overlaid tax districts include the Beaverton School District (BSD), Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District (THPRD), and Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue (TVF&R). And of course, there’s Washington County, too, which provides human services, courts, elections, public health, etc.

Since most municipal services are provided by independent government bodies, the City of Beaverton’s services are limited to police, transportation and land use planning.

On a typical tax bill for a piece of property within the City of Beaverton, the city’s portion of the total tax only comes to about 22%. Education, including BSD and Portland Community College, is the biggest chunk, at 40%. The county takes 16%, TVF&R 10% and THPRD 9%.

So when the City of Beaverton proposes an urban renewal district — which, by the way, would encompass fully eight percent of all land within Beaverton city limits — diverting $150 million from future revenue increases, what they’re talking about is taking money from education ($60 million), from the county ($24 million), from fire and rescue ($15 million) and from parks ($13.5 million). Of that $150 million, only $33 million would otherwise go to the City of Beaverton without the urban renewal area.

Now, I realize they’ve somehow gotten buy-in from BSD, THPRD and TVF&R, and all these agencies have endorsed the ballot measure. But it still doesn’t wash for me.

Beaverton officials are more than happy to lie about urban renewal and its impact on overlaid tax districts. In the July/August 2011 Your City newsletter (PDF), City Council member Ian King does some disingenuous hand waving about the diversion of funds from schools.

Will Urban Renewal take money away from Beaverton schools?

The short answer to this is also: No. Schools are funded by income taxes from the State School Fund and not local school funds.

Anybody who can read their property tax bill knows this is pure bullshit. BSD, THPRD and TVF&R have all acknowledged this will cost them money (how they were convinced to hold their noses and support this would be a good topic for another day).

Diversion of funds from critical services aside, there are other reasons to argue against this one.

  • Beaverton’s only other URA, in 1972, was used entirely for transportation improvements. In the current proposal, only 48% ($72 million) would go to transportation, and another 4% ($6 million) would go to streetscape and creek improvements. A very troubling 33% ($49.5 million) would go to “Joint Investment Programs,” which involve direct investment in commercial real estate development. If you think Beaverton has the expertise to be successful in commercial real estate development, I invite you to look up the “Beaverton Round.” I rest my case.
  • It’s nice that Beaverton residents get to vote on whether to take funding away from other Washington County residents, but it seems like all affected citizens ought to be able to vote on this. Maybe those of us in unincorporated Washington County should vote on whether to raid the Beaverton Planning Commission’s budget in order to pay for our street lights (yes, I have a line item on my tax bill for street lights).
  • The head of Beaverton’s Urban Redevelopment Agency, which would be in charge of spending the loot, is none other than Don Mazziotti, who had his way with the funds at Portland’s urban renewal agency, PDC. His tenure there was pock-marked with the usual give-aways to big condo developers (like Homer Williams), as well as questionable use of the company credit card (over three years, he billed PDC nearly $13,000 for meals — nice work if you can get it).

And just to keep the UR cheerleaders at bay, yes I do understand how tax increment financing works.

Here’s the nutshell, for those who aren’t as nerdy as me: Oregon law allows cities to declare an area “blighted” (which is rather loosely defined), and create an urban renewal area. The city then sells municipal bonds and uses the proceeds to make infrastructure improvements which (ideally) spur private development, which (hopefully) causes the assessed value of property to rise. For the sake of the general property tax, assessments within the blighted area are frozen at the levels they start with, and revenues from taxes on incremental increases in property value pay off the bonds issued for the infrastructure improvements. (This is why it’s called tax increment financing.)

Once the bonds are paid off, the additional valuation of the property reverts to the general assessment, which, presumably, would then be higher than if urban renewal had never happened, and everybody’s happy.

This sounds great, but it’s based on at least one glaring, faulty assumption: that without the URA, property tax assessments would fall or stay flat. Given that assessments in Oregon typically lag significantly behind real property values (due largely to 1997′s Measure 47, which limited assessment increases to 3% per year), it is virtually inconceivable that over 30 years the net assessment within any significant part of town would stay level or drop.

Adding to this flaw is the fact that cities typically draw URAs to include properties that can’t be considered blighted by any stretch of the imagination, and that URAs have typically come to include shady development subsidies (including direct investment), and you’ve got a recipe for diverting large volumes of tax revenue from vital services and into the pockets of private real estate magnates.

Beaverton’s proposal doesn’t look anywhere close to as shady as a typical URA in Portland, where PDC acts more like an insular commercial real estate developer than a fully-accountable public agency. But this still looks like a bad deal for Beaverton and the rest of Washington County.

Please vote “No” on 34-192. If you can.

Don’t believe the hype

by Steve, October 10th, 2011

The corporate media of the world first tried to ignore the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then they tried to portray it as clueless.

Many people seem to be buying that portrayal.

Watch as former Rep. Alan Grayson smacks down Libertarian talking head P.J. O’Rourke while neatly summing up the raison d’tre of the movement.

Happy Labor Day, from the anti-labor Oregonian

by Steve, September 5th, 2011

laborThe Oregonian has been nominally anti-labor, at least since their acrimonious 1959-1961 destruction of their own union. They have become more actively anti-labor since the 2009 appointment of libertarian N. Christian Anderson as publisher.

This Labor Day the Oregonian splashed the headline “A public unions battle in Oregon?” across A-1, above a story by clueless political hack Jeff Mapes which, without a hint of irony, details the anti-labor initiatives which may or may not make it onto the Oregon ballot, as well as past measures which have lost.

And who’s been the O’s go-to guy on this shit for years? Why of course, we get a money quote from and convicted felon Bill Sizemore above the fold on this day to celebrate working people: “It would be fun to have this on the ballot again…. It would be the ghost of Bill Sizemore on the ballot again.”

You’ve got to read well past the jump, to A-7, to find to a couple quotes from labor leaders. You know, the folks who actually have credibility with working people in this state.

Also above the fold is a headline about the US Postal Service’s fiscal woes, with a deck blaming “generous labor contracts” (and “the Net”).

Of course the O can’t be expected to note that working people are the vast majority of people, or that public sector unions buoy wages, benefits and working conditions for all workers, or that a major aggravating factor in the current, persistent recession is the loss of public sector jobs. Instead, we get the persistent drum beat of anti-worker, libertarian/monetarist, anti-deficit, counter-progressive propaganda. It’s not just the O, of course. But it’s kind of sickening to wake up to this crap on Labor Day.