Saturday, November 8, 2008

Money

Oregon law requires anyone spending more than $300 on a political campaign to create a "candidate committee." If you spend more than $2000 you are required to file details of all transactions at the Secretary of State's website, and information about those transactions is available to the public. If you're wondering what it takes to run a campaign in a town of 7000 residents, here's what I spent:
100 lawn signs + stakes..............$582.72
postage ..............................$21.00
big sign ............................ $40.00
purchase mailing list from county ... $27.79
3200 postcards + postage ..........$1,534.11
Let me know if you have a creative use for "Arthur Babitz For Mayor" lawn signs. They served as handy trays at our election night party.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Update

Here are the 4:14AM updates from Hood River County. I think these numbers are close to final, since the turnout calculates to about 86% of registration:
Mayor CITY OF HOOD RIVER
Vote for 1
Arthur Babitz . . . . . . . . . 1,738 66.59
Bob Palmer . . . . . . . . . . 852 32.64
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 20 .77
Fire Bond:
14-34 CITY OF HOOD RIVER
Vote for 1
Yes . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,438 51.84
No. . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,336 48.16

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

History

It's exciting to play a bit part in such an historic evening. You can view full Hood River County election returns here. According to the 9:50 PM accounting (100% precincts reporting) I won the mayor's race:
Mayor CITY OF HOOD RIVER
Vote for 1
Arthur Babitz . . . . . . . . . 1,320 66.47
Bob Palmer . . . . . . . . . . 653 32.88
WRITE-IN. . . . . . . . . . . 13 .65
Also important is our city fire department equipment and facilities bond, which seems to have passed. It says a great deal that the people of Hood River are willing to pass this bond measure even in the face of the economic crisis:
14-34 CITY OF HOOD RIVER
Vote for 1
Yes . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,076 51.51
No. . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,013 48.49

Election Day, 2008

I suppose I could spend election day watching exit polls, but this seemed like a better idea. Fresh, wet snow-- just enough to cover the rocks and provide some perspective. In twenty years, what will I remember most about today?

Monday, November 3, 2008

100 Years Ago Today

On November 3, 1908 voters of Hood River were deciding between William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan. Teddy Roosevelt was retiring, and his hand picked successor Taft won.

It was four years before women would win the right to vote in Oregon (national women's suffrage didn't happen until 1920). Hood River County had just been created in June by a ballot initiative. Here's the partisan breakdown of the Hood River County electorate in its first election:


Sunday, November 2, 2008

The End Is Near

Time to plan your election evening activities. Columbia Riverkeeper is inviting everyone to a non-partisan celebration at Double Mountain Brewery from 5PM until midnight. They will have the street closed off, with a heated tent for watching election returns. There will be beer, food, and events for kids too.

Arthur For Mayor election headquarters is just a few blocks away, at Brian's Pourhouse. I'll be hanging out there from about 6:30 until we have local results, which is usually by 8:30. After that we'll hopefully join the Riverkeeper party.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Endorsements

I'm honored to have received many important endorsements in this race-- our current mayor, Linda Streich, former mayors Paul Cummings and Steve Gates, and all the people who've put my signs on their lawns. This weekend I earned the endorsement of The Hood River News:


Our Picks

Hood River Mayor: Arthur Babitz


October 25, 2008

The Hood River News' editorial board is urging a vote for Arthur Babitz as our town's next mayor. Babitz is an articulate businessman and a valuable member of the city council. He is the best choice to set the political tone for the city, as it continues to evolve as the recreational and agricultural hub of the Gorge — and as it experiences belt-tightening similar to that occurring from Astoria to Burns, from Brookings to Enterprise, and many points in between.

That's not to say Babitz's opponent, Bob Palmer, isn't qualified to be mayor. (Indeed, Palmer served as mayor in the 1990s.) In fact, Hood River voters are in a unique position, having two willing candidates who are highly qualified to serve in the city's highest political office. Both are personable; both are proven community stewards. Palmer brings to the job more than a half century of knowledge as a public employee and a volunteer. Palmer retired as the city's fire marshal in the early 1990s. He is a veteran volunteer with the Lions Club and has a knack of making strangers feel like long-lost friends. Babitz can't match Palmer's years of service, but he is equally as personable and has displayed a similar passion for his hometown since moving here more than a decade ago.

The demands on a small-town mayor vary from city to city. Hood River's unique setting in the Columbia River Gorge and closeness to Mount Hood bring it more attention than arguably most Oregon cities of around 7,000 people. The New York Times wants a comment on kite boarding or windsurfing and it seeks out the mayor. The Seattle Times needs a reaction to a climbing incident (and the sheriff isn't available) and it looks up the mayor.

What's more, in Hood River there are many partnerships between public and private entities, and public and public entities. We have the city, the county, the Port of Hood River, the Gorge Commission, along with the state of Oregon, school district and others. A higher percentage of our business and commerce depends on the working relationships between these groups.

We also have a diverse group of business and industry, including countless "home-based" businesses. Babitz recognizes the importance of having those businesses included in the political process. Consensus building is a trait Babitz has displayed as a city councilor since 2006. He is comfortable in different settings, whether dealing with business clients on a worldwide basis or making "cold calls" on neighborhoods.

Both candidates know the value of a strong working relationship between the city and Port of Hood River. The Port's plans for the waterfront will affect the face of Hood River for eternity.

Babitz has shown he can identify areas that need to be streamlined and then work through the process to make sure they get done. For example, by studying the budget he came to the conclusion that the city was draining its own reserve funds for water and sewer by charging administrative fees. It's not in the best interest of the city to eliminate reserve funds that would be needed in an emergency.

At first glance, one might think Palmer has more time to give to the city. He's retired and admits he needs something to keep busy. But Babitz owns his business, which offers him flexibility. Babitz is an engineer, so his acute curiosity to see how things work is not surprising. That said, he has spent hours researching audit reports and budgets; he has demonstrated he is willing to put in the time.

A duo ticket — Palmer's institutional knowledge combined with Babitz's business acumen and attention to detail — would be best for Hood River. But that's not possible. We hope Palmer continues to be an advocate for our community; we hope Babitz is the town's next mayor.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Numbers

This November there are 3527 registered voters in the City of Hood River, out of a population of about 6800. This is an increase of more than 8% since November 2006.

50% of all current voter registration records are either new or have changed (different address, party affiliation, etc.) in the last 2 years. 75% are new or have changed in the last 6.5 years. 90% are new or have changed in the last 12 years. The oldest unchanged registration record is from 1955.

Hood River city voters are about half registered with the Democratic Party, and a little less than a quarter each "unaffiliated" or Republican Party.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tip of the Day

Most Oregon voters received their ballots Saturday. If you send your ballot back right away, you can save yourself two weeks of junk mail and phone calls. While county election officials are not allowed to tally votes until November 4th at 8PM, they update their records daily to note who has already returned a ballot. Smart campaigns purchase that list (~$30 in Hood River) to save hundreds of dollars by avoiding mailings or calls to people who've already voted.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What, Me Worry?

For the last few weeks the most common question I've been asked is, "How will the economic crisis affect the city?"

Short term:
  1. Cities issue bonds for everything from new sewer lines to fire trucks. The bond market is frozen right now. Cities are actually very reliable borrowers, so I'm expecting the municipal bond market to be "fixed" before too long, but there will be ripple effects.
  2. Gas tax: Back in April the state told us to expect 8% less gas tax revenue, which we use to repair roads. It may be even worse.
  3. Construction permits: The end of the housing boom means a dramatic drop in revenue from construction permits.
  4. SDCs: The drop in residential construction also means a big drop in income to our "system development charges (SDCs)-- funds which are banked to pay for future infrastructure capacity upgrades.
  5. TRTs?: Our transient room tax (TRTs) have been strong so far this year, but if consumers truly get spooked and stop driving to Hood River we'll see a drop in one of the major components of our General Fund revenue.
Long term: The city is us, so anything that affects our finances will eventually affect the city. As an example, property tax delinquency rises when foreclosure rates rise.

There is a small piece of good news here: When we started budgeting back in April, we decided to take a conservative view on revenues, so even with revenue declines in some categories we're probably OK in the short term. We also scheduled a mid-year review in November, so we can consider if any mid-course corrections are called for. I don't think there is any doubt that the Budget Committee will be willing to move aggressively if the numbers don't look good.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More Press

Here's a view of our Mayor's race from Rediviva, a local magazine:

Friday, October 10, 2008

Equal Time

Since there are few opportunities for me to appear in person with my opponent in this race, Bob Palmer, I've decided to post his "Mid-Columbia Today" interview here for your listening pleasure. Sorry, but I don't have a photo of him to post.


video

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Also on the Waterfront

I'm excited about what's going on at our waterfront, and it's because of more than just our great new park. For many years the city and the Port have butted heads on the future of the largest block of industrial lands in the city, but now there is a plan in place which has both city and Port support. Not to put too fine an edge on it, but we need more than just tourist industry jobs in our city. We have a healthy and growing technology cluster here, and I expect these plans to help encourage its growth. Check out the Gorge Technology Alliance's great white paper on our tech cluster. Also check out the Port of Hood River's report on the waterfront development project. It's slightly dated, but it's still useful.

The Port is concentrating on developing the "core" area of their lands-- basically those bordered by I-84, Portway Avenue, 2nd Avenue, and the Wastwater Treatment Plant. They've chosen not to tackle the thornier issues of how to use some of the waterfront plots until they have some good experience under our belt. Smart move. As a community we can learn from these first steps and then make better decisions about some of the more delicate parcels.

The plan funds infrastructure improvements such as an upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant and road improvements through an urban renewal district. Urban renewal uses a mechanism known as "tax increment financing" (TIF) to pay for improvements. There have been many questionable uses of TIF around the country in recent years, so it's worth discussing what it is and why it makes sense in this case. The basic idea is that undeveloped land does not generate much tax revenue for government. Under TIF, a government can borrow money to put in infrastructure to encourage land to be developed, then pay off that loan using the increased taxes generated by the newly developed land. State law allows any increased taxes to finance certain improvements. Since an empty lot doesn't generate nearly as much property tax as an industrial building, this "increment" can be substantial. Part of the tax bill continues to go to the normal places, but the increment goes back to the urban renewal agency to pay for infrastructure.

The assumption in TIF is that the property would not have been developed otherwise, so it is in the interest of the governmental bodies that receive property tax revenue to agree to the temporary diversion of property tax increases in order to get future tax revenues. All the taxing districts on your tax bill (city, county, school district, transportation district, etc.) will see the taxes generated from the urban renewal district frozen at today's levels until district finishes paying for its infrastructure. The increment in taxes due to greater development pays those bills.

If the property in an urban renewal district would have been developed without the public tax funding of the infrastructure improvement, then the TIF scheme becomes a way to channel tax revenue away from local governments and toward private developers. The tax increment which would have happened anyway doesn't go to benefit our schools and local governments, it goes to pay for infrastructure that private developers should have paid for. Governments have used questionable TIF funding to the benefit of big box stores in many jurisdictions, so it is worth asking, "Why does this project justify TIF funding."

There are two reasons the waterfront district would not get developed without TIF funding. First, the odor from the sewerage treatment plant has made it extremely difficult to keep tenants in the building near the plant, let alone attact new development. The TIF will pay for capping and filtering parts of the plant to get rid of the odors. Second, private developers have been scared away by the decades of political battle over this chunk of land. This agreement between the city and the port is clear proof that we've put that behind us and are moving forward.

I know this was a long entry, but I'll end it with a bold statement: 2008 marks the turning point for the Hood River Waterfront. The Park and the new industrial development will not only transform the waterfront, but the entire city.

On the Air

I appeared on Mark Bailey's "Mid-Columbia Today" radio show Tuesday morning to talk about my campaign. Mark does a great job making his guests feel comfortable and finding the interesting aspects of local politics. I'll confess I haven't listened to this myself since like most of you I find it painful to listen to my own voice, but hopefully it won't be painful for you.

video

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Check It Out

If you're not sure your voter registration is correct, you can now check it out online. Just go to the website and fill out the form.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Deadlines

October 14th is the last day you can register to vote in the November 4th General Election. There are 83 legislatively mandated deadlines around this election, so do the election's office a favor and get your card in early. If you've moved since the last election you need to let the county election office know, since they will not forward your ballot. In fact, they can inactivate your registration if a ballot is returned by the post office.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Learning From History

A question I'm frequently asked is, "How did we get into this fiscal mess in the first place?" In a state that requires balanced budgets, how could we dig a hole in our general fund so deep that it's still around after a decade? The question is more than academic. While we are almost out of the hole, we need to understand how we got into it so we don't make the same mistakes again.

The piece of Oregon budget law which everyone can quote is that a budget must balance. You can't submit a budget document where the resources (revenue) don't match the expenditures. But after looking at audit reports going back more than a decade, I can show you several ways you can get in trouble while still submitting a balanced budget:
  1. Fall short on revenues, but continue spending as planned.
  2. Spend more than is budgeted.
  3. Overestimate a fund starting balance, then spend everything in the fund including the starting balance.
  4. Spend grant money that doesn't come in.
  5. Operate with balances near zero, without contingency funds for legitimate emergencies.
  6. Budget ongoing yearly expenses (like payroll or debt service) that don't have a regular source of revenue (like property tax) to cover them in future years.
It is easy to be smug and conclude that you'd have to be pretty careless to do any of these things, but in the real world it's not always so obvious. The budget is a very complex document (a spreadsheet of over 50 pages), and we frequently don't get critical pieces of information (like ending balances from the previous year) until long after we've made decisions where that information was needed. And since most people don't exactly enjoy the budget process, it's easy to ignore it outside of the annual budget season. Unfortunately by the time you're working on the next year's budget it's far too late to adjust course for the previous year.

Last year I proposed a new set of budgeting rules to keep us from making these mistakes. They prohibit the practices that caused the deficit in the first place, and increase the planning horizon so we are working with better information when we prepare the budget. They also mandate greater transparency in budgeting, so it's easier for the council and citizens to provide oversight. Here are some examples:
  • Every fund needs a contingency (10% in the general fund). We're not done with our "deficit reduction plan" until we have some buffers in our critical funds.
  • Recurring expenses like payroll must be covered by recurring revenues like property taxes, not by drawing down reserves.
  • Payroll and tax revenues must be forecast three years out, so we don't go down a path of adding staff that we can't afford past the current year.
  • All capital equipment (fire trucks, police cars, etc.) need to be on a replacement plan so we know several years in advance how much money we'll need to keep the fleet operating.
  • Transfers between funds need to be clearly identified so we can be sure actual expenditures match the plan the council and budget committee have agreed to.
None of this is a substitute for careful, timely oversight. We've scheduled a mid-year tune-up to be sure the predictions we made back in June still hold in October. I'm convinced that the budget committee and the city council take their role in getting our finances back in shape very seriously, but you have a role too. Pay attention and ask questions. Every time you ask a question you remind us to take another look. That look might flush out a problem while there's still time to fix it. The more people who are asking questions about the city's finances, the more likely we are to maintain the discipline to keep ourselves out of trouble.

Monday, September 1, 2008

What's Up?

One of the most common questions I'm asked is,"what going on now in city council?" Here's a quick list of issues we've discussed in the past few months:
  • Budget
  • Water and sewer major infrastructure projects
  • Revenue sources (ie. taxes and fees)
  • Waterfront Park
  • Annexations
  • Fire Dept. building/ equipment bond measure
  • Urban Growth Boundary expansion
  • Urban renewal district for the waterfront
  • affordable housing
  • downtown parking (and heights parking too!)
  • building code review
I guess I have plenty of topics to talk about in future posts. But before we get too serious, here's a picture I took at last week's opening of our new waterfront park. Kids, dogs-- how can you resist?

Setting the Tone

As I announced my candidacy for mayor of Hood River this week I've been asked the "why?" question more than a few times. This blog should help answer it. (And no, this isn't my stepping stone to the vice-presidency.) If you really are interested in Hood River politics you can also check out my blog from my city council run two years ago.

Most people only have a vague idea of what our mayor does, so that's a good place to start. Our City Charter says the mayor is the seventh member of the city council, with a few special roles:
  • the mayor chairs council meetings
  • the mayor can add items to the agenda (other council member can do this too, but require a vote)
  • the mayor officially signs ordinances and proclamations (but only with agreement of council, and without veto power)
A common misconception is that the mayor breaks ties. Our charter requires 4 votes for any motion to pass no matter how many are present, instead of the normal "majority of those present" rule. This means that the only tie the mayor breaks is a 3-3 tie, since the mayor's vote can make the 4th. A 2-2 tie can't be broken.

The mayor, like the rest of council, is an unpaid volunteer. There are of course the ceremonial ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings, but I hope I've made the point that the money and power are not a big reason to be mayor under our charter.

There is just one thing that I can do as mayor that I can't do as a council member, but it's a big one to me. The mayor sets the tone for public involvement. While Oregon law requires most proceedings of government to be open to the public, there is a big difference between being allowed to attend a meeting and being invited to participate in charting the course of the city. I want the public to play a more active role in running the city. I'll just talk about one example now: we've all been working very hard for several years to restore our city's fiscal health. In the next two years, we will have to make fundamental decisions about what city services to fund, and how to fund them. I'll bore you with plenty of details later, but for now I want to talk about how we'll make those decisions.

In broad strokes the problem is that city revenues (taxes and fees) grow with inflation and new development at a slower rate than our major expense, which is payroll. This means that to balance our budget we can increase taxes or fees, add new taxes or fees, decrease services to cut expenses, or some combination of all three. Do you have an opinion on this? Maybe not in the abstract, but as soon as we start talking about specific new fees or specific service cuts, everyone wants to be part of the discussion-- and they should.

Here are the steps I see:
  1. educate. We can't just talk about elements of this in isolation. The council and the public need to understand how taxes and fees are tied to services, and what trade-offs can be considered. Example: Don't talk about whether a gas tax is a "good idea", but whether a gas tax should be considered to replace to $150,000 we're losing in federal funding for road repairs.
  2. discuss. No one has a monopoly on good ideas. We need to hear ideas from all quarters. My simple rule for running a discussion is to allow people to talk until things start getting repetitive, then it's time to move on.
  3. decide. We can choose our course as a community. Everyone won't agree, but we need to move forward with a plan that best reflects the needs of our city.