WL budget committee presents bond project recommendations
From the start, West Linn knew it would be working within a tight window if it wanted to get a potential General Obligation (GO) bond on the ballot for May 2018.
The process began at the Citizen's Budget Committee level, and over the course of three meetings in just under a month, the committee learned about the two current bonds that are set to retire, examined community survey results and whittled down a list of 40 potential projects that could be funded by a renewal of the existing bond levy rate of $.42 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value.
At a Dec. 4 City Council work session,Todd Jones, budget committee chair, shared the final recommendations of the committee. The project selections were made unanimously by the five members of the committee and included a total of 11 initiatives ranging from the enhancement of "safe routes" to schools to improvements on Highway 43, the replacement of the West Linn Public Library's roof, construction of trails based on the West Linn Trails Master Plan and new recreational access to the Willamette River.
"We basically identified projects that were in all of our top 10 (lists), and put them in a temporary category of 'probably yes,' and then the ones that were in none of our top 10 were in 'probably no,'" Jones said. "And there were some 15 projects in the middle. We had them compete against each other, based on criteria we identified, on a head-to-head basis."
The budget committee's final list of projects, according to Jones, was estimated to cost between $21-22 million. While the City originally estimated that a continuance of the $.42 cents per $1,000 levy would generate about $20 million, City Manager Eileen Stein said that figure is now projected at between $15-18 million.
The process, however, is still in its beginning stages. While the City conducted an informal community survey in the fall — which was taken by just over 1,000 residents who favored many of the projects that the budget committee ended up recommending — West Linn enlisted the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) for a more in-depth survey that is in the process of being drawn up. That survey will be done by phone, with calls made randomly to registered voters and those who are identified as "likely voters." The council opted to meet again Thursday, Dec. 7 to discuss the project list and how it should be presented in that survey.
Regardless of which projects are ultimately chosen for potential bond funding, the process will be complicated by spending requirements. As West Linn Finance Director Lauren Breithaupt pointed out during the Dec. 4 work session, GO bonds require that 85 percent of a given debt issuance be spent within the first three years of the bond.
"There's a lot of projects on this list that are considered long term," Breithaupt said. "What that means is we can do something called 'issue in series.' So we can look at it and say there's some short-term projects here, and we believe that out of these short-term projects we can finish 85 percent in the first three years and finish the rest within a five-year span.
"So instead of issuing $15-20 million right now, we'd issue $6 million right now and another $7-10 million, however much it is, in a few years from now."
Of course, as Breithaupt noted, issuing in series does carry the risk of unknown interest rates further down the line.
"We don't know what interest rates will be in five years," she said. "We have a rough idea for the next six months, but less after that."
But if the council wishes to include long-term projects like improving Willamette Falls Drive on the upcoming bond, it has little choice but to utilize the "issue in series" method.
"If some projects are marked five years-plus, there's obviously no way to spend 85 percent in three years," Breithaupt said.
As part of the discussion, the council noted that it might be beneficial to present bond projects in more general terms.
"I think we recognize that when you go to survey the community on putting a bathroom in a particular park, it doesn't rank very high," Mayor Russ Axelrod said. "But if you ask the community, 'are you interested in upgrading and maintaining our parks?', (they'll say) 'Well of course we are.'
"But we have to make sure we meet the qualities of the bond, have enough specificity and a dollar amount."
Staff noted that the council should also be cognizant of potential grant funding for some projects. As an example, the City has already received grant funding from the state for Highway 43 improvements. Public Works Director Lance Calvert said other projects like improvements to Willamette Falls Drive are seen as less likely to receive grant funding and thus might rely more on bond money.
Moving forward, the council will continue to meet and whittle down its list of projects for the bond. The measure must be finalized by the end of January 2018.