Let me make myself perfectly clear
In a post here on Friday afternoon, I suggested that it might be time to fight the City of Portland's real estate developer welfare system with a ballot measure repealing the city's urban renewal property taxes. It might have a chance of passing, I thought, if the perennial anti-taxers like Lars Larson got together with the outraged neighbors from all over the city (Lair Hill, Buckman, Homestead, etc., etc.) who dislike the ugly and elitist brand of development that their property taxes currently subsidize.
Based on the weekend buzz around here, it turns out that the idea may "have legs," as they say in Hollywood. But I suspect there may be some misunderstanding about exactly what I am proposing. There's so much smoke and mirrors around urban renewal generally, and around loosely guarded pork pots like the Portland Development Commission in particular, that there's a good chance my idea might be misunderstood.
So let me outline it a litle more carefully:
A goodly portion of every Portland property owner's property tax bill goes to City of Portland urban renewal projects. That includes us folks who don't live in an "urban renewal area." In fact, it says right on my property tax bill that 7.89% of my property taxes, several hundred dollars a year, goes to "Urban Renewal - Portland." That's the tax I'm talking about doing away with.
Now, I know that some folks like Lars who might also favor repealing the tax would do so out of an entirely different motivation from mine. I would definitely be willing to continue to pay the same amount of property taxes in the future as I pay now, but I'd have it be spent on police, schools, and mental health for the indigent, rather than condo towers and a sky tram to Pill Hill. Without being disrespectful, I suspect that many of Lars's followers would just as soon pocket the tax savings. So the alliances that would have to be formed to shake things up wouldn't be very easy or peaceful ones.
But sometimes you have to dance with the devil.
I'm very tired of paying 7.89% of my property taxes for the Pearl District, Convention Center, streetcar, tram, and other goofy toys that the city and the PDC keep handing us. I'm very tired of the hypocrisy that surrounds the treatment of public concerns on projects such as the 325-foot-tall view-blocking towers in South Waterfront and the Burnside Bridge Home Depot. I would gladly support a ballot measure to outlaw the use of citywide property tax dollars for the joke that urban renewal in this city has become.
Is that irresponsible? Absolutely not. Even if it was tantamount to pulling the plug on urban renewal and starting all over, the timeout would be well worth it. If the city thinks a project is worthy of mandatory contributions from taxpayers citywide, let it bring each project before the voters one at a time. I'd pay a hundred bucks a year to revitalize MLK, or build that Buckman Community Center, or spruce up some of the older retail districts. But I want to see before I agree to buy.
And if that didn't work, if we really did stop urban renewal as it's currently practiced in Portland, no one would die. But we might still have a city that reflects the values of most of us who live here.
(UPDATE, 3:45 a.m.: b!X has some better analysis of the urban renewal property tax. He suggests that the city's credit rating might be tanked if the tax were suddenly repealed. Even he confesses that he doesn't have the whole picture, but he certainly has a better grasp on it that we do at the moment. We would not want to bankrupt the city, but we would like to figure out a way to give this aspect of city government back to the voters. Let's pay off our old debts for urban renewal toys, but let's not buy any new ones without a conversation and a popular vote.
UPDATE, 9:52 p.m.: You know you're on to something when you get the politicians' attention. My friend City Commissioner Randy Leonard, whom I like but with whom I viscerally disagree about South Waterfront, began circling the wagons around urban renewal on BlueOregon this evening. Yep, I think we're on to something here.)