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Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Blizzard of lies

The folks on the editorial board over at The O keep me amused. Today they have this to say about the Portland police bureau's recordkeeping problems:

At City Hall, officials are poised to make Portland a national leader in cutting-edge wireless Internet networking. A sophisticated city-backed project called Unwire Portland aims to make high-speed wi-fi access available all over town.

Two blocks away, though, city police rely on technology right out of TV's old "Dragnet" show. The digital age may have begun in the previous century, but the Portland Police Bureau's criminal record-keeping is still being done essentially by hand....

Your basic last-century system, in other words. Such traditionalism might seem quaint in a Norman Rockwell sense, something akin to Portland's mounted patrols. Trouble is, the archaic record system is hurting crime-fighting in the city....

Portland's Pony-Express-style record collection no doubt helps explain some of the Police Bureau's problems....

Very perceptive comments. I liked them even better than when I wrote them here on Monday. I should send them a bill! As the kids say when they're caught in plagiarism, "Great minds think alike."

Not always, though. The editorial in Sunday's O about the "OHSU" aerial tram was full of baloney. I'm not a big one on "fisking," but a response is in order for several highly misleading points made in the editorial.

In three years, as The Oregonian's Fred Leeson reported recently, estimates of the tram's price have nearly tripled, going from $15.5 million to $45 million. Such a breathtaking increase undermines public confidence. However, it's reassuring to know that the proportion of the cost, borne by the public, hasn't grown. Currently, the public's share of the tab is less than 10 percent.
I guess the taxpayers of Oregon aren't "the public." Isn't OHSU a state university that receives a subsidy every year from the state government? Doesn't much of the rest of its funding come from the federal government? How many nontax dollars are in that tram budget? Precious few.
No money from the city's general fund -- used to support police, fire and other city services -- is going into the tram. The public's contribution will come from urban renewal dollars, flowing from the taxable value created by the South Waterfront development.
Two reactions here: (1) not true, and (2) irrelevant. First "no money from the general fund... is going into the tram." The city may be doing the accounting that way, but any property tax revenue being spent on this project takes money away from programs like fire, police, and other city services. Under Measures 49 and 50, there's an absolute maximum amount that property owners in Portland can be required to pay in property taxes every year. If it weren't for that legal limit, property taxes would be much higher. And so every property tax dollar spent on one thing means a dollar less is available to spend on something else. All the accounting smoke and mirrors that the city uses can't obscure that fact from most thoughtful observers, although apparently it's good enough to fake out the O.

Second, whether you call it "urban renewal dollars" or not, it's still property taxes. As I've noted here many times, 19 cents of every dollar I pay to the City of Portland in property taxes goes to "urban renewal." I do not live, nor have I ever lived, in an urban renewal district. You can call it anything you want, folks -- all of us who live in the city are paying for the tram, out of property taxes. The label they put on it at City Hall is meaningless, except to folks like the editors of the O.

The public's benefit from the tram is not confined to riding on it, of course. OHSU, with 11,400 employees, is one of the state's largest employers. By linking OHSU to the South Waterfront, the tram has triggered a $2 billion redevelopment of a rusted-out river front that will soon be an extension of downtown Portland.
Even if you accept this rosy picture, it all could have been done without an aerial tram. For $45 million, you could have bought a fleet of 450 stretch limos to chaffeur anyone who needs a ride up and down the hill on a moment's notice. And so far, very little of what's being built down there has anything to do with OHSU. To me, this looks like it's more about the Homer Williams condos than anything else.
Soon, the tram will be a trophy for OHSU, a tourist destination and a true transportation link.

Yes, and the O says it will be "snazzy," too -- a sure sign that it's a complete and total waste of money.

Finally, the editorial fails to call out the cost overrun on the tram for what it is -- clear evidence that the proponents of the project simply lied with their initial cost estimates. It's no surprise. In fact, scientific studies have shown that developers and transportation officials all over the U.S., and the world, routinely lie when pitching "infrastructure" projects to the dupes who pay for them.

But don't expect the O ever to say something like that about fellow members of the Arlington Club set. That's just not the way we do things in Portland.

Comments (25)

Oh, yeah - a tourist attraction - I'm going to drive up from California to stand on line and ride a tram packed full of doctors up to a hospital. Quick - somebody open a gift shop up there!

Oh sorry, what that negative?

As usual, our local leaders seem to be asleep at the wheel. A wireless internet cloud over Portland?? Gee, aren't there about a million other places to put that money? And, there is eveidence that elctromagnetic waves (used in wireless comunications) are linked to cancer (see National Cancer Institute's website at www.cancer.gov)

How about paving some roads?
How about building some community centers and playgrounds for communties that aren't wealthy?
How about building some shelters for the homeless now that winter is once again upon us?
How about stopping the corporate/developer welfare that goes on with every new and unneeded development?
How about pulling the plug on the tram project?
How about making this city a good place for EVERYONE to live, instead of continuing the Vera-inspired status quo?

My thoughts exactly, TV. I guess the bridge linking OHSU to the Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is considered a tourist attraction. Personally, I don't think the patients at the VAMC are hip to having slack-jawed gawkers milling through the hospital.

But, what's particularly galling about the O article is the fact SoWhat property taxes go back into that particular Urban renewal district instead of the general fund; even after the abatements expire.

It is my understanding that the latest cost overrun has to do with the cost of steel rising unexpectedly. Is this not true?

re: Martha's comment. The cost of steel has risen, however I think that's a red herring. Kind of like when TriMet said they weren't prepared for diesel fuel costs higher than $1.04 per gallon or something like that, earlier this year.

"Yes, and the O says it will be "snazzy," too -- a sure sign that it's a complete and total waste of money."

Great line! I never understood the need for this farce.

In his blog, Commissioner Sam says the city can't get out of the tram deal without paying fines and penalties. Are the fines a fixed amount? Or are they a percentage of the cost of the project? And if they're a percentage, do they change everytime a higher estimate comes out? Sam, for example, wants a 20% contingency on top of whatever today's new number is. Surely the fines and such don't amount to 20%, do they?

At what point does it make sense to just cut the check and be done with the tram? I would think the city passed that point months ago. $50 million would be much better spent on a new Sellwood Bridge.

Wondered how long it would take you to pounce on that, Jack. The lie about urban renewal money not being tax dollars is especially galling. We wonder if this tax scheme -- where some taxpayers benefit from certain revenues and others (who are footing the bill for the entire city) do not -- creates two classes of citizens. There's a lot of talk about that these days, you know.

Hey, will ANYONE be able to ride that fancy tram, or is it built only for employees of OHSU? Anyone know? Because I figure I've paid good money for this investment, and I intend to get a few rides out of it.

Also, Jack, I think you're losing your touch--several hundred words about the tram, and nary a [rim shot] to be seen!

Heh. Since this was a post all about the tram, I figured I'd give the rim shots a rest. Otherwise, it would have read like a Gene Krupa drum solo.

Does anyone understand how Measure 11 (2002) is involved with the funding of the tram?

This is what I know (from the meaure's explanatory statement): The measure amended the Constitution and authorized $200 million in general obligation bonds to finance capital costs of the Oregon Opportunity program, created by OHSU to develop statewide medical reseach and biotechnology opportunities. It raised the debt limit for bonded indebtedness to 0.5% of the real market value of all property in the state. The source of repayment is the General Fund, lottery funds, the tobacco settlement fund, and amounts appropriated from other sources, but not including ad valorem property taxes.

I believe this measure was designed to shift the repayment from OHSU's revenue (via revenue bond funding) to a general obligation of the state and that the tram is a component of the Oregon Opportunity program. The measure's opponents argued against the tram in particular.

Can anyone enlarge?

I saw a presentation last year given by the Project Manager for the Tram. He was very clear that the tram was to be simply a functional extension of the mass transit system. My monthly bus pass would be all I need to transfer from the bus or trolly to the tram. They also weren't expecting this to be a huge tourist draw. In fact, the termination point up on the hill at that time was slated to be a boring doctor's office lobby- no spinning restaurant or expansive view windows to draw the tourists. I think I'd rather take the limo...

Jack, I don't think there's enough grounds to accuse the O of plagiarism there. Yeah, you beat them to it, by covering their story before they did. Nice work.

You're also not getting the full picture out there on the tram. The public portion of the bill would be capped in the 15% range, or about $5-6 million. Say all you want about limos and shuttle buses, this is what OHSU demanded as part of a $1 billion deal.

You make enough good points without having to exaggerate.

You miss both my points. It's not just I wrote a commentary they agreed with. The "last century" and "Pony Express" lines they used are fairly blatant "borrowing." As is the contrast with the wifi cloud project.

If OHSU money isn't included in what you're calling the "public portion of the bill," then I'm afraid you and I will never be able to have a sane dialogue about this sorry, misguided (and suspicious-looking) project.

The public portion of the bill would be capped in the 15% range, or about $5-6 million.

The point is that insofar as OHSU is a publicly funded institution, you can never really draw a sharp distinction between "public portion" and "OHSU's portion," as their "share" involves spending some tax dollars.

it would have read like a Gene Krupa drum solo.

More like Ginger Baker...

The public portion of the bill would be capped in the 15% range, or about $5-6 million.

Hmmm...and what part of OHSU's revenue comes from Medicare and Medicaid? Federal grants? OHSU is a public institution, not a private, for-profit entity where the decision to "fund" the Tram comes out of stockholder profits.

The Local Improvement District being used as a mechanism for OHSU's spreading the cost over time spreads costs based on benefit. That's state law. As the price tag goes up, that shouldn't --theoretically-- change the apportionment method, just make those amounts higher. But OHSU, I hear, doesn't want to pay more. So how the LID process gets played out will be interesting.

I almost look forward to riding the Tram. I like the one in New York that travels to Roosevelt Island. Its not bad technology. Unfortunately it makes no sense financially, and is --as it will continue to be-- a drain on city resources we can't afford. It would be interesting to know the price tag for pulling the plug once and for all. Commissioner Adams could come out looking like a hero...

It would be interesting to know the price tag for pulling the plug once and for all.

I asked Sam Adams to post on the web the entire contract that makes the city liable. So far, no response.

Yes, I stand corrected on OHSU being public, or at least quasi public. However, in terms of money for cops or parks or fire, that OHSU money doesn't have a direct impact.

I don't know about the "last century" and "horseback" stuff. Do you really the editorial board reads your blog before they write their stuff?

I, too, fretted about the plagiarism charge against the Oregonian’s editorial board for the Pony Express line, especially since I couldn’t find the term “Pony Express” in your piece. You’ve got to let this stuff slide, Jack. That’s a serious allegation that I doubt you can definitively prove. Besides, once I heard a fairly complicated joke on the Tonight Show years ago and I thought it was mine. When they said someone else had written it I said, “Are you sure?” They said, “We received 12 versions of that joke.” Given the details, it doesn’t take a lightning bolt from God to determine that the Portland Police use a system from the last century. It’s more like a fact. But even if they took it from you: My material bounces around to other shows where it is presented as original, all the time. Just smile, and take it in stride.

I tend to agree with Bill on this one. I didn't see it as plagurism; just similar thoughts.

Hey, like I said, it amuses me. I realy don't mind at all. I don't know if it was a copy, and I don't really care. But it's, as the man used to say, "veddy interesting." Three different parallels. Uncanny.

I read it again, and I see it now: Jack was just kidding around! And that sort of thing is protected speech, whereas making certain allegations is not.

You can't copyright an idea, anyway. Or three ideas.

Does anyone know how much general fund money, lottery money, and tobacco settlement money is going to pay for the tram pursuant to Measure 11(and is therefore otherwise unavailable for other purposes)? The commenters seem to be greatly concerned about the dedicated money from the LID (rightly so), but I bet it's nothing compared to the direct financial impact on all Oregonians due to the money drain from these other revenue sources. That's where the real scandal is, folks.

OHSU is a "public corporation" which has a governing board of directors whose members are appointed by the Governor.

It receives funding from three major sources: federal grants (mostly in the form of NIH grants), state tax revenues, and payment for service for patient care (insurance and/or out-of-pocket). The thing is, as the state's largest provider of indigent care, a clear 50% of its patients qualify as indigent care...meaning that near 50% of patient care revenues are coming from the Oregon Health Plan.

This supports an institution which educates health care professionals, undertakes research in health care, and provides clinic and hospital care. It's my understanding that OHSU was supposed to make the hospital portion of the institution free-standing in terms of revenue, as part of the agreement to cut it loose from the OSSHE.

It's my understanding that OHSU's presence in the SoWhat district is to be clinics and research (primarily BIOTECHNOLOGY, the big crap shoot), with little to do with educating health professionals beyond providing clinical experience.

I'd say the primary portion of costs of operation and capital for OHSU is tax revenues of one type or another.

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