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Passing any bond measure takes time, credibility

Now that we are a few weeks after the election, it’s a good time to consider why bond levies keep failing at the ballot box.

Although East County has traditionally been unwilling to vote in favor of higher taxes, there are some important lessons for public bodies arising out of recent failures and success.

MATT WANDIn particular, in 2010, Troutdale voted in favor of incurring approximately $7 million in bonded debt for the purpose of constructing its first newly constructed police station. On the same ballot in other cities, public safety levies failed. Admittedly, a police department is different from a school district, but there are some pearls of wisdom in Troutdale’s success.

Credibility was critically important to the campaign. It wasn’t built during just a few months during the campaign. We had (and still have) excellent leadership in the Police chief. The officers are top shelf professionals, who are well respected in the community. We had no labor unrest, suspension or reduction of services, or any other action on the part of the officers that harmed the credibility of the department. The city also paid for a detailed construction engineer’s estimate of the cost, so that the voters could have faith in the amount being sought. In short, it was clear to Troutdalians that we were receiving a significant value from our police department.

As it relates to schools, the unending controversies harm the districts’ credibility. Everything from employee theft and misconduct to outright arrests of teachers and administrators, not to mention sub-par graduation rates and test scores, makes taxpayers wary.

Unfortunately, too many taxpayers who do not have children of school age do not see the school buildings as a meaningful part of the community. They are generally closed to the public during the summer and after hours, the labyrinth a person or group must traverse to get access to facilities is not particularly user-friendly, and too often the public hears about groups being thrown out of schools (everything from Scouts to nonprofit sports programs).

For the taxpayer without a child in school, the buildings must get back to being a center of the community in order to rebuild credibility.

Second, taxpayers have to see true innovation in the budget. In Troutdale, we spent several years just prior to the financial crash paying off short-term debt, saving money and catching up on our delayed annual capital improvement expenses. For example, every year the City purchases two new police cars. This ensures a working fleet, without incurring the extraordinary expense of replacing half or all of the fleet in one year (which would break the budget).

The school districts must show the taxpayers similar innovation.

It is nice, for example, that furlough days have been restored. But how about extending the school year as part of — or in lieu of — cost-of-living raises?

As a state, we have one of the shortest school years in the country. Show taxpayers that they are receiving more and they will be more likely to reciprocate. Even the calendar that is adopted can be frustrating with all of the short weeks, holidays and in-service days. Many taxpayers see kids running around the neighborhood in the middle of the week and simply think that the schools are dropping the ball. These taxpayers vote.

Passing a bond levy in East County isn’t a two- or three-month campaign. True credibility and budget innovation take years to develop, strengthen and then show the public. But until this necessary work is done, bond levies in East County will continue to be extremely difficult to pass.

Matt Wand of Troutdale writes a monthly column for The Outlook. He is an attorney with a law practice based in Gresham since 2006. He has served as a Troutdale City Councilor and state representative from East County. He lives in Troutdale with his wife and three children.




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