Economic development and infrastructure top 2012 Bend forecast agenda
Bend’s future prospects in key areas such as infrastructure and economic development were the hot topics for featured speakers at the 2012 City Forecast presented to business and community leaders recently at downtown’s Oxford Hotel.
The Bend Chamber event, sponsored by the Miller Nash law firm and Miller Lumber, also provided a snapshot of recent progress, with outgoing Mayor Jeff Eager opening his address by saying, “This is not so much about the state of the City as it is about the state of the people who live in Bend.”
Eager observed that since 2009, the population’s needs had been “largely economic” with many concerned about whether they could even stay in the community given the effects of the downturn, which also impacted the City budget.
But he pointed to “encouraging” signs for brighter days latterly, including the addition of 660 private sector jobs in Deschutes County for the 12-month period from May 2011-12, which represented the first year-on-year increase since 2006-07.
Building permit activity had also risen significantly, with Bend on track to issue 400 single family home building permits this year – almost double the 2011 level, though still some way off the lofty peaks of the mid-2000s.
Population figures also increased by 1,100 last year after a period of stagnation, but Eager stressed the need for continuing vigilance to prioritize stimulating job growth, adding, “We want to create an environment where people can create jobs.
“Government doesn’t create private employment, but we can create an environment where entrepreneurs can.”
He said the City believes the three primary ways it can help in this direction were through addressing the issues of public safety, infrastructure and promoting a reasonable cost of living/cost of doing business.
One of the major strengths of the City is the excellence of its police and fire departments, but they faced ongoing budgetary challenges in maintaining service levels due to exponentially rising personnel costs, particularly in regards to Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) obligations.
He said the PERS burden was rising across the state, and the City’s proportionate share could cost an additional $1 million during the next fiscal year.
“We can’t continue to have over 20 percent rate increases and continue to provide the same level of service in the community,” said Eager, who revealed he had spearheaded the sending of a letter to the League of Oregon Cities, of which Bend is a member, asking that addressing public employee pension reform be made a top priority during the state’s 2013 legislative session.
In the realm of infrastructure, the passing of a general obligation bond last year to fund roundabouts and work on Reed Market Road replaced expiring funding for downtown projects to produce a tax-increase “neutral” result in terms of streets, which still faced rising maintenance costs, but major challenges remained regarding the thorny issues of water and sewer needs.
The proposed $68 million surface water system overhaul caused a storm of controversy, but Eager said much of the costs were anticipated for replacing pipes dating to the 1920s and in meeting state and federal obligations regarding treatment capabilities.
In light of the public outcry, a resolution was passed prioritizing projects such as replacing the aging pipes and reworking intake facilities, but a push back was undertaken on the treatment portion, partly due to the addition of appropriations bill language – with the help of Senator Greg Walden – giving communities more flexibility in meeting regulatory requirements.
On the sewer front, Eager highlighted the formation of the Sewer Infrastructure Advisory Committee aimed at bringing down the estimated $170 million price tag compiled regarding a collection system master plan that was outlined during healthier economic times, though he stressed tackling this capacity issue had a “huge impact” on the City’s ability to service new business.
Regarding controlling the costs of doing business, Bend had managed to balance the budget without tax increases and even recently saw an unexpected $2 million rise in revenues, half of which were directed to reserves, and the remainder earmarked for bolstering public safety and street resurfacing shortfalls, as well as funding initiatives such as promoting the four-year university cause and addressing the Mirror Pond silt question.
Eager said one of his main goals during his tenure has been to avoid creating any major new regulations, and indeed he had promoted the relaxation of some portions of the code and expediting of the permitting process in a bid to spur business growth.
In the light of parallel continuing efforts on several fronts, Eager concluded, “I hope to see things continue to turn around, and that everything feasible is done to make sure the people of this City have the environment to be prosperous.”
Fellow speaker City Manager Eric King said one of the signs of a healthy community was “specific engagement” on major issues, and he also pointed to signs of improvement and hopes of “riding the wave up.”
Statistical data also showed the City compared favorably with other jurisdictions in the state in terms of development costs, though it typically had more to catch up with relative to cycle maturity, but King readily admitted that Bend’s planning costs were proportionately high and work was being done to address that key ingredient.
Utility cost comparisons showed the City of Bend “in the middle of the pack,” but at the lower end of the scale in terms of annual average tax.
Structural problems regarding such a relatively low tax rate had seen the workforce reduced by 20 percent over the last five years resulting in 60 lay-offs, and the City now has 5.5 staff for every 1,000 in population compared to 11 per 1,000 in 1990.
King added, “We are smaller as a government agency and have gone through realignment to become a leaner organization, including doing a good job at protecting and improving the financial system and building reserves through tough times.
“For the next five year plan we are also trying to be more proactive than reactive.”
He said public safety was funded through the general fund and that revenue was growing at about two percent each year while service demand was growing at seven to nine percent annually, though building permit activity was expected to be at some 600-plus by around by 2016, which was “more sustainable” for a city of Bend’s size compared to the staggering 2,400 permits issued at the annual peak.
To combat the issue, he said more investment was being made in technology in areas such as online reporting and regional records management systems to minimize administrative labor intensity and free up officer time to be more strategic with resources.
The City is also looking at consolidating the City fire department and rural fire district to seek greater efficiencies.
Economic development initiatives continued to bear fruit, particularly in regard to the contract with EDCO and the creation of jobs and additional tax revenue, with a number of new projects in the pipeline.
King added that actions currently in place to address “course corrections” also included the appointment of the new City Assistant Manager to coordinate the reorganization and realignment of departments, the building of reserves/preparation for the future and a more focused public infrastructure and growth management strategy “that reflects community values.”
In response to questions as to whether Bend’s approach to luring new business was diverse enough, King responded, “The City has refocused its economic development on small business and growing and retaining those businesses. Economic Development for Central Oregon is working on the large traded sector.
“In Bend, 90 percent of employers have 20 employees or less, so we need to take a different approach rather than focusing on just the big fish. We can’t lose sight of that, but we also need to work on our infrastructure challenges. We need to have shovel-ready industrial land.”
Another attendee asked if Bend was prepared for the infrastructure needed if OSU-Cascades Campus goes to a four year university model, to which King replied, “We are looking at a variety of things including on overlay zone that would allow for a greater flexibility of uses.
“We are also looking at standards and our transportation study to see if we can rely on bike and pedestrian modes of transportation.
“The next step would be putting projects on the Capital Improvement Projects list as part of a foundation economic development strategy.
“We strongly support OSU and want to make sure the infrastructure is there.”