You can't take a sharp picture of a fuzzy object
Does the Portland Development Commission do a good job? Is urban renewal working in Portland? City Auditor Gary Blackmer (right) sent out a crew to start asking these questions, and they came back with few answers but many additional questions.
The Blackmer report was written up by Oregonian reporter Ryan Frank the other day, and he offered readers his rose-colored glasses, to be sure. "Portland renewal zones flourish," proclaimed the headline. But a careful reading of Blackmer's report paints a much different picture -- an assessment that would better be described as lukewarm. It finds the PDC's job creation strategies only "somewhat effective," and concludes that the jobs picture didn't differ much in several of the city's urban renewal areas from what it was in comparable areas of town that didn't receive PDC subsidies. Employment in two key urban renewal areas was about the same as in the rest of the city -- down around 9 percent. And what additional jobs the PDC creates, the people who live in the urban renewal districts typically don't get.
The O article did own up to the fact that the report criticizes the PDC's data collection and performance measurement systems. But the O summary -- "the city needs to do a better job measuring the success of its business recruitment work" -- is putting it rather mildly. The Blackmer report found that "on an organizational level,... PDC lacks clear goals, measures and data it needs to continually improve its decision-making processes and better link its investments to community results." Indeed, in two key areas, the report finds, the PDC publishes misleading data -- showing projected economic development results for projects that are already completed, and leaving the impression that these are actual, observed results. And the scope of the auditor's investigation was limited by the fact that there isn't enough information readily at hand to evaluate the PDC's performance.
Indeed, a fairer summation of the Blackmer report is that there's no way to tell whether the PDC is doing a good job, because the agency has poorly defined goals and doesn't keep the information necessary to determine whether it's succeeding at whatever it's supposed to be doing. What data the auditor's office dug up on its own reveals mixed results, and some of the records that the PDC shows around are less than candid.
There's enough interesting material in the report that concerned readers ought to read the original document and see for themselves. It's here. Don't let the number of pages scare you -- there's a lot of white space in there. I'm going to post some more entries on various aspects of the report over the next week or so, and I invite readers to help me steer the additional discussion.
Before leaving the study for now, however, just one additional observation is in order. The Blackmer report spills most of its ink on the end results of urban renewal, but it never mentions the opportunity costs of the many hundreds of millions of dollars that ordinary Portland taxpayers have been forced to throw at urban renewal over the years. Remember, more than 19 cents of every property tax dollar the City of Portland collects, from every taxpayer in town, goes to pay for "urban renewal." If the PDC weren't blowing that money by way of its $200 million annual budget (estimated spending for this fiscal year was actually $248 million -- a 167 percent increase over just four years), what else would the money be available for? Expressed another way, how badly does "urban renewal" drain needed funds away from core government functions?
Oregon state law requires cities to estimate the financial impact of urban renewal activities (such as tax abatements) on tax collections, but as has been mentioned in this space before, Portland refuses to comply with that law. Other cities can do it (Lake Oswego, for example), but Portland says it's impossible.
There have been several calls by urban renewal critics for the city to start complying with this law in earnest, but so far they have fallen on deaf ears. You would have thought that the city auditor, while he's busy talking about unavailable data and missing performance measures, might have said something about that. But there's not a word in the report about it.