Debate arises over how much of potential funding should be put into city facility improvements

West Linn city councilors are in lockstep agreement about the need to renew an expiring General Obligation (GO) bond to fund city projects.

Exactly how the projected $15-19 million should be spent, however, is a different story. That debate continued during a work session Monday, April 2, with just over a month left before voters weigh in. Specifically, the three councilors present — Mayor Russ Axelrod and councilors Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik — agreed that transportation should receive the majority of funding but were at odds when it came to how remaining funds should be divided between city facilities and parks. Cummings and Sakelik also worried that the council was losing track of the big picture.

"I just would hate to see so much of the discussion on this bond fussing on details," Cummings said. "We don't have those thing in front of us, but we do have a bond."

The City has emphasized that the proposal under consideration is not a tax hike. The proposed ballot measure would instead renew an existing bond levy of 42 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value that has been in place since 1998. Such a renewal is estimated to generate $15-19 million over the course of about 21 years.

In a "ballot title" document that will go to voters in May, the City targeted roads, parks and city facilities as the top priorities for improvements should the bond pass. Specifically, funds would be allocated to "design and construct safe routes to schools, sections of Highway 43, arterials, streets and intersections to address safety, traffic flow and connectivity."

The ballot language further promises to "repair and improve aging city-owned properties" and "rehabilitate existing park facilities." The City also hopes to use potential bond funds to improve and rehabilitate park areas — including expanding river access.

Several voter surveys conducted in late 2017 and early 2018 showed that transportation was the top priority for voters, and four of the five councilors — Bob Martin has been on leave since February — have since agreed that roughly two-thirds of the potential bond funds should go to transportation projects. The impasse is over how to spend the rest of the money, with Axelrod and City Council President Brenda Perry — who was on vacation April 2 — favoring an emphasis on parks while Sakelik and Cummings are pushing for city facility funding.

Among the city-owned buildings that could receive funding is the old Bolton Fire Station, which some residents hope to convert into a community center that could house the West Linn Food Pantry and West Linn Community Preschool, among other activities. A handful of residents testified in favor of that idea during the April 2 meeting, and several of them questioned statements made by Axelrod in an email to the council and City staff that was sent out earlier that day.

"You're misrepresenting the costs of building (the Bolton Community Center)," resident Bob Kirkendall said.

Following the community comments, Axelrod shared a detailed breakdown of how he felt city facility funds could be broken down if the council went with his recommendation of allocating between $1.2 and $2.1 million to that category. Because the Bolton Fire Station property was, as he put it, "dysfunctional and underutilized," Axelrod felt it would be more prudent to spend between $20,000 and $50,000 on basic renovations to the property while pursuing a public-private investment opportunity in the future that would bring in a community center.

"I'm a champion for community centers," Axelrod said. "But when I look at the investment criteria that go along with the bond, and structural issues and investment potential and fiscally doing the right thing, I come up with different suggestions."

In turn, Axelrod proposed that more funding — between $675,000 and $1.1 million — go to the Robinwood Station, where he envisioned a new structure constructed in place of a current utility building. Axelrod felt that structure could potentially house the food pantry and preschool - both of which have been searching for new homes.

After presenting his funding breakdown, Axelrod said he hoped to see a similar breakdown from Cummings and Sakelik.

"The other councilors who are planning on spending $4 million (on city facilities) — prepare this table and show me where you're going to spend it," Axelrod said.

Sakelik and Cummings continued to emphasize that it wasn't the right time to dive into specifics.

"Clearly transportation came out very high in the surveys," Sakelik said. "(We should) split the (remaining) balance between parks and facilities — and how we do that, we determine later on."

"I don't want to get caught up in all of this," Cummings said.

The council will discuss the matter further at its April 9 meeting.

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