(Mayor Steve Uffelman at his home in Prineville | Photo by Bill Mintiens)
Prineville’s new Mayor, Steve Uffelman, enjoys serving the people of the City of Prineville. He must — this is the fifth time he’s been Mayor. “I was appointed to the city council in 1985 and I served as Mayor 1988 – 90, 1990-92, 1998-2000, 2000-2002 and now 2019-21,” said Uffelman.
Uffelman took the reins recently from Betty Roppe who retired after eight years as Mayor. Campaigning for the post was not difficult for Uffelman this time around. “There was no campaigning, I was the only person on the ballot,” he said.
Why be Mayor five times?
You’d think that someone who’s an unpaid volunteer, in the community spotlight during both bad and good times, might be gun-shy about assuming the mayoral post again. Not Uffelman.
“I was planning on running again when Betty (Roppe) retired,” he said. “We were finally developing the momentum that I wanted us to go in for a long time — and I didn’t want to lose it by walking away from the opportunity to continue that progression.”
The City of Prineville’s present strong economic condition has not always been the case. The collapse of the wood products industry, combined with the Great Recession, put great strain on the city coffers.
And data centers weren’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. “Back in those days (when he served as Mayor) a lot of things that we envisioned, we did not have the resources to effect change,” he recalled. “A lot of it is timing, we didn’t know we were going to have a data center back then.”
Presiding over a diverse council
Diversity may not immediately come to mind when thinking about Prineville — but the city council now consists of four women and three men.
Uffelman doesn’t make a big deal out of that fact. “I like to think people are elected, not because we’re trying to create diversity, but because we’re getting the best people moving forward,” he said.
But Uffelman acknowledges that folks who don’t live in Prineville/Crook County may have a somewhat distorted brand image of the area.
“Maybe we present ourselves as that blue collar, cowboy community,” he said. “We have the rodeo, we have the Western Days, we have things that make our western heritage stand out — and we enjoy it, we celebrate it.”
Uffelman stresses that he’s not coming into the position with a set of goals for the council. He wants to continue the positive momentum created under Mayor Roppe. “I don’t have a lot of personal goals,” he said. “I have a general direction I want to go — but I’m not coming to the council with an agenda.”
Uffelman’s “general direction” is continued economic health. “My goal really is the overall health of the community,” he said. “What do we need to do to improve and sustain the health of the community economically?”
The City of Prineville, like every other community in Central Oregon, is challenged with affordable housing issues. Uffelman feels the city has done everything it can to stimulate developers and builders.
“If you look at all our zoning standards and regulations, we have done all of the things to accommodate entry level/affordable housing,” he said. “We just don’t have developers and builders willing to invest yet.”
A retired real estate broker, Uffelman sees the real estate situation very clearly. “You can build the exact same house in Bend and sell it for 30-40 percent more,” he said. “You may pay a bunch more in system development charges in Bend — but when you build a house in Prineville for $190K you can sell the same house in Bend for $260K.”
Many people feel the answer is a reduction, or elimination, of the system development charges (SDC’s) that builders pay to fund a portion of new streets, sanitary sewers, parks and water.
“I’m not interested in subsidizing builders at the expense of taxpayers,” he said. “But we did just reduce them, as an incentive, about $900 from the approximately $13K cost.”
Recent unemployment data shows Prineville with an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent. The state’s rate is 4.1 percent. And for comparison Deschutes County’s is also 4.1 percent.
Uffelman says there are jobs available in the area – if people really want to work. “If you drive around town you see a lot of help wanted signs,” he said. “Contact Lumber, in the windows of retail businesses downtown, something like 14 jobs at Les Schwab and there are needs at the data centers.”
Cutting right to the point, Uffelman said “If a person lives in Prineville and doesn’t have a job, they either don’t want to work or they’re holding out for a job that they’re probably qualified for — but doesn’t exist in Prineville.”
Increasingly, the City of Prineville is cited for its environmentally conscious projects. Uffelman is proud of that. “We have environmentally conscious projects going on — the Wetlands, the Waste Water Treatment Plant which has no pumps and the Aquifer Storage and Recharge System (a water management tool that allows the City to meet peak demands by taking advantage of the natural storage space found in geologic formations underground) — we’re doing things for the right reasons,” he said.
For Uffelman, who also happens to be an Episcopal Priest, it all comes down to doing the right thing and taking care of people. “These are the things that are really important to me,” he said. “What can we do that’s visionary, longterm and sustainable at minimal expense of upkeep to the residents?”