Election issues: Council candidates talk about ambitious projects
In the fifth and final installment of our Q&A series, we asked City Council and mayoral candidates about project prioritization. If a candidate's answers don't appear, it's because they didn't provide them. We also added parentheses in certain cases for context.
But first, here's a little background: Wilsonville has a number of ambitious infrastructure projects that are either already in the pipeline or at least have been discussed in recent years. Specifically, the council has supported three bridge projects.
An I-5 Pedestrian Bridge, the city has said, could provide multimodal connectivity across I-5 and complement the city's plan to redevelop the Town Center commercial area. The bridge would drop into Town Center near Regal Cinemas from the other side of I-5 near Peyton Lane. City council will soon finalize a bridge type and plaza design for the project.
Next, the council supports the French Prairie Bridge over the Willamette River, which would provide multimodal and emergency vehicle access from Boones Ferry Park to the Willamette Valley. Some believe it could attract tourists and the project inspired one Wilsonville resident to try to bring a major bike ride to town. The city has yet to determine funding for this project.
Finally, the city wants to build a bridge over the large dip on Boeckman Road to improve transportation safety. The city is currently evaluating project specs and could decide to fill the canyon and add a vertical embankment rather than build a bridge.
The question of whether the city should spend money on these bridges was a hot-button topic in the last election cycle, with Councilor Ben West and candidate John Budiao saying that the city should either save its money or use it elsewhere.
Meanwhile, groups like WilsonvilleSTAGE and the Wilsonville-Boones Ferry Historical Society have said they need a place to call home, and some sports coaches and advocates say there aren't enough public fields and courts in town. The city recently pursued the purchase of a facility that could have served the function of a performing arts center (Meridian United Church of Christ) and nearly hired a consultant to develop plans for an entertainment complex. Both ideas were shelved — the former because the city couldn't come to an agreement with the church and the latter because of COVID-19 impacts. Also, the city halted progress on a proposed parks and recreation bond this year in the wake of COVID-19. The bond likely would have included the addition of sports fields.
One way the city funds development is through urban renewal, which takes the taxes generated from increases in property values and uses it to build public infrastructure. Some say it is one of the only tools a small government has to carry out big projects while others think that it guzzles tax revenue away from public entities like the local fire department and school district. The city currently has three urban renewal districts.
For context, Councilor Ben West and former councilor Julie Fitzgerald are running for mayor while Council President Kristin Akervall, Councilor Joann Linville, John Budiao and Imran Haider are running for two open council seats.
Spokesman: Wilsonville City Council is working on bridge projects over I-5, the Willamette River and the dip on Boeckman Road. Where do you stand on these projects? How would you prioritize them?
Budiao: The dip on Boeckman Road is mainly needed for safety, especially in the winter time, as traffic will increase considerably on the east side with the development of Frog Pond. Unfortunately, neither the bridge over I-5 nor the Willamette River will help solve traffic problems. In fact the bridge over the Willamette River may increase traffic in the Old Town area. So, to most residents they have a very low City priority. Additionally, there is no readily available funding to build either bridge and I don't think the taxpayers have the appetite to pay for it with the current economy.
Fitzgerald: I prioritize the Boeckman Dip Bridge, a long-time priority to correct an existing sight line safety issue, and the correction requires vertical clearance from Boeckman Creek. The sight line correction and roadway widening have been determined to be important safety issues for some time. Two engineering concepts are in review by engineers, one a bridge and one an infill option. The right answer on which method is best will be determinable after the engineering studies and cost estimates are known.
The bridge over I-5 is just in the design phase, to provide safe pedestrian access and bicycle crossing over I-5. The entire current city council approved a budget item for the current fiscal year to reserve City funds for construction. The item has already been approved by the current council.
Linville: Completion of the Boeckman Road dip is the most important infrastructure priority bridge project from a safety and traffic perspective. This project will require construction of a bridge and upgrade to environmentally sensitive habitat adjacent to the bridge. The I-5 pedestrian bridge is second of my priorities. The design project is funded exclusively through grant and construction funded exclusively through transportation system development charges and grants. This project isn't competing with other projects that are funded from other sources. It only gets built if sufficient transportation SDCs are collected. The Willamette River bridge is lowest of my priorities.
West: The first project priority is the Boeckman Road bridge because it is a safety issue in an area with increased housing. When Clackamas County faces 11% unemployment, it is not the right time to focus on pedestrian bridges when families are trying to keep food on the table. A chunk of the I-5 and Willamette River bridges are partially funded by METRO and other grants. However, there is still a significant investment required by Wilsonville taxpayers. There is some utility for the I-5 pedestrian bridge, but I am concerned that we have only secured land for one side of the bridge at a cost of $1.5 million.
Akervall: We have a responsibility to thoughtfully allocate City resources, and decisions like these are challenging. We need safe connector streets/routes for our citizens that provide improved access for businesses and other community services. These three projects are all very different and would potentially have different funding sources. To me the Boeckman Dip and I-5 pedestrian bridge projects address safety and sound fiscal management. The Boeckman Dip project would increase safety for vehicles and other modes of travel. This is especially important as this road is a critical East/West connector and leads to the Meridian Middle School. The initial design work for the I-5 pedestrian bridge is grant funded and the design work could position the City to further leverage grant funding for the overall project. If we fail to apply that grant money to this project, the money must be returned.
Haider: It would be fantastic to improve our city infrastructure in the form of bridges and traffic flow. If we have the funds and the bandwidth to do these significant projects, we should move forward with them. The only other factor I would consider is if there is another project of great urgency and need that must be placed ahead of this with the funding available.
Spokesman: Both the idea of a sports complex that would provide field/court access and serve as a tournament space and a center for performing arts have been brought up in recent years. If either, which of these projects would you prioritize and why?
Akervall: These project ideas are not new to the City. Our Parks Master Plan identifies plans for additional sport fields, and the City's draft Arts, Cultural and Heritage Strategy notes interest for an arts/cultural center. Last winter, the City requested proposals to examine the feasibility of a combined sports/event facility to determine demand and economic impact, however, COVID halted this work. I would prioritize projects that have a well-documented history of support within the community, and projects that offer the opportunity for the City to leverage beneficial funding opportunities such as grants. Project decisions like these need to go through a public planning process where community members can provide feedback and where traffic impacts can be examined. What comes from the public process is what should guide our decisions on new projects.
West: I chaired the parks bond task force, which would have funded the expansion of our parks and sports fields. The unexpected economic downturn made a bond no longer a viable option for a city vote. I fully support youth sports, which is part of what makes Wilsonville a special place. I dream of the development of facilities that would allow Wilsonville to host regional tournaments. It would be a significant economic asset to the city, and an investment in young people's lives. With a little elbow grease and creativity, I am committed to find a pathway to private/public partnerships to create a sports complex in Wilsonville.
Haider: I like the idea of a sports complex and arts center. I have grown up playing sports and still have a passion for athletics. Whichever activity a kid chooses for their afternoons and evenings, according to research can be key in their development of completing their HS degree and also being able to retain employment. We should have options for our youth to enjoy our city and develop their personalities additional to an amazing school system we have here. The evening and weekends options of performing arts can also serve as a lifeblood for a city and possibly a revenue producer to improve infrastructure going back to question one and completing major projects.
Linville: To provide visionary leadership for our community, both these projects should be included as priorities with very different points of contact for our community. It is critical for our community to expand access to playfields AND provide performing arts venues. The West Linn-Wilsonville School District capital bond measure funding the 600 seat performing arts center at Wilsonville High School will assist in providing access to the arts, but will not fit the entire community need. Additionally, Wilsonville is woefully in need of competition fields for softball, baseball and soccer for youth and adult competitions and potential tournaments.
Budiao: My first priority would be for the city to meet its commitment to build out the sports fields on the 10 acres next to Meridian Creek School, both for the use of school athletics and the public. As far as a performing arts center, I'm hoping that building a larger auditorium at the high school that our local theater group might be able to use that same complex until we as a city can afford our own performing arts center.
With the use of corporate sponsor(s), I would be in favor of building an outdoor sports complex for various sports tournaments. We could easily draw teams (football, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse) for regional tournaments which would help mitigate the total cost of construction and operations.
Fitzgerald: Based on the ranking of projects by citizen involved task forces, and by a recent no vote on a pool and sports complex, I rank the performing arts center higher than a sports complex.
Spokesman: The Wilsonville government has consistently used urban renewal to foster development in recent decades. What do you think about this funding tool?
Haider: It has shown to be a great asset that does not affect the pocketbooks of Wilsonville communities. Urban Renewal cannot add taxes to our local residential contribution or property tax. It has helped with road improvements and community gathering areas all over the city to make this city as efficient and beautiful as possible.
Linville: Wilsonville would not have the infrastructure it enjoys today without Urban Renewal. This to fund infrastructure that is critical to the livability of our community. In exchange for taxes that go to the County, City, schools, and emergency services, the City has been able to fund Wilsonville Road and other improvements, parks in Villebois, Murase Plaza, Wilsonville HS facilities and fields, acquisition of land for location of Lowrie Primary School, infrastructure and land acquisition for the Coffee Creek industrial area and many other improvements. Our community partners most impacted by decreased revenue, agree the n community improvements are well worth the program.
Akervall: The intent of urban renewal is to stimulate economic development through private investment in the community. As with any development tool, giving all those impacted a voice in decisions is critically important and valuable. With that in mind, Wilsonville has installed an Urban Renewal Task Force made up from members of the taxing districts that are affected by urban renewal, business leaders, and the community. I am happy to be the Council representative on this task force. Under urban renewal, private investment has made our City more valuable, safe, and financially stable without adding new taxes. For example, the Year 2000 District, or East Side district, has funded many infrastructure projects, raised property valuation by $300 million, and added more than 3,000 jobs.
Budiao: Our Wilsonville Councils have used Urban Renewal (UR) primarily not for "blighted areas" but for infrastructure, and even our new City Hall. Even though voters approved UR, they were promised UR taxes would go away once the bonds were paid. This has yet to happened and our citizens could use this money during this economy. Part of the reason is that new portions of UR land are continuously being added by the City. Additionally, the cost of supplying infrastructure to Villebois has more than doubled from its original City estimate. Wilsonville is at its maximum limit of how much land they can put into UR. This is why the city recently borrowed $200,000 to pay for infrastructure on the Coffee Creek Industrial Area. We need to be wiser with our borrowing and planning.
West: The initial promise with Urban Renewal was to fund infrastructure to bring industry to Wilsonville. However, that is not how it has been used. There are too many examples of urban renewal financing luxury items, and we need to be more sensitive to other tax districts such as schools, parks, fire, and public safety. Wilsonville has maxed its allotment of urban renewal allowed by state statute by reaching 25% of all land in the city limits. The result is that new urban renewal districts are not available for projects that could entice industry. Use of urban renewal must be strategic and narrowly focused, with the goal of protecting essential taxing districts and keeping property taxes low.
Fitzgerald: Urban renewal is to stimulate economic development through private investment in a specific area of the community. The types of urban renewal activities undertaken generally include land assembly, development of infrastructure, and public amenities such as streets, utility lines lighting, public open spaces, and parks. When Urban Renewal can be used effectively, as it has in Wilsonville, and not adversely affect other entities like our schools and fire protection. Urban renewal can increase potential to build employment lands, leading to new jobs and to diversify our tax base, I am in favor of it. Each potential use of Urban Renewal should be evaluated on a case by case basis. Some cities have failed with Urban Renewal, and therefore, extreme diligence is needed in determining how and when to use this tool.
Spokesman: Let's say there's a project the council enthusiastically supports but it has an expensive price tag. What are some funding strategies you would consider employing to get the project off the ground?
West: Unfortunately, the question proposed is nothing more than an academic exercise. The primary sources to fund large projects are urban renewal or bonds. As discussed above, urban renewal is not a readily available tool because the city has maxed out its allotment allowed by state statute. Currently, the city does not have debt associated with bonds. Regardless, I always support the voters choosing whether or not we spend their money on expensive projects that puts the city in debt. If the voters decide to participate in a large expenditure, I will always be a good steward of their money.
Fitzgerald: Sometimes, Urban Renewal can be used, depending on if it qualifies and is projected to be beneficial to the city and its residents. Urban Renewal is not an option for most projects. Other tools can include grants from public and private agencies, taxpayer increment financing. Numerous options are available from use of general fund dollars to public-private partnerships. I do not have one particular tool to recommend as a blanket solution, because the tool that works best depends on the project.
Linville: The most fiscally sound sources for funding for expensive projects for our City are System Development Charges (SDCs), Revenue Bonds (essentially just user fees we collect through the utility (water, sewer, storm water and street lights) billing department, federal, state and regional grants and General Obligation bonds (most common for parks and recreation facilities, police stations, and other general fund related facilities like city hall and libraries). Urban Renewal/Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is also available but mostly commonly used for hard infrastructure like streets, major water, sewer lines, storm water detention facilities and pipe conveyance.
Akervall: I have learned from my time on council and through research that there are many funding possibilities and approaches depending on the project. Targeted budgeting, grants, urban renewal, bonds, or a public/private partnership can all be options, but analysis needs to be done to find the best fit for the project and what will serve the community as a whole. I support this being done in public forums and meetings where the community can follow what is being recommended. I also support using our Master Plans, which have gone through a public process, as guiding documents when considering what projects we want to push forward. This helps ensure the work being done is representative of the values of the community.
Budiao: The first question I would ask, even though the council enthusiastically supports a project, is do the Wilsonville citizen taxpayers feel the same way. If a majority of our citizens think it is important, then they would be willing to be taxed for general obligation bonds designated for the project. A good example is that a majority of Wilsonville citizens surveyed wanted a swimming pool, but when it came to paying for it, the majority of tax paying citizens turned it down. Wilsonville citizen support is always the key, and also the key to getting huge donations, multiple federal grants, and sponsorships for projects. Listening more closely to what the citizens of Wilsonville want will guide the council on projects.
Haider: Look at the reserves of the city and hopefully be able to utilize what has been organically created from there over time. In the case of the building (formerly used as a church) possibly being purchased by the city for a multi-use facility, it was great that funds already existed to continue the conversation for that project. The other idea might be to utilize our revenues and/or possibilities of our excellent water system to produce extra funds in the future.
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