The proposed panhandling ordinance that's been floating around city hall for the past few months may be torpedoed for good this week. The council was scheduled to meet Wednesday night (after this issue had been printed) to discuss, among other things, the city attorney's research into the legal issues around panhandling. Her report, which was available on the city's website (ci.bend.or.us) prior to the meeting, didn't exactly provide a ringing endorsement of the concept-one of several that have been floated in the past half year or so, including graffiti removal laws and downtown skateboard bans that seem to be targeted at Mayberrifying Bend. But the council may have to draw the line at panhandling, which enjoys near blanket protection based on Oregon's broad free speech laws.
Medford was the most recent city to attempt a panhandling ordinance and got the smackdown from a district court judge. Medford is appealing, but the law is pretty clear, according to city attorney Mary Winters. A city can adopt rules to keep its citizens safe, but it may not enact laws that limit speech, including solicitations for handouts.
While Winters didn't make a recommendation, she cautioned the council strongly against jumping into the fray. "Adoption of even a modified version of the Medford ordinance could lead to costly constitutional challenges that the city could lose," she wrote.
If that's not a flashing red light, we don't know what is.
Several councilors said prior to the meeting that they weren't too keen on a panhandling ordinance, particularly if it could land the city in court.
"My gut feeling is that unless it's legally bombproof, I don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole," said Councilor Mark Capell.<
In other city news, the council is coming down the homestretch on next year's budget plan and it isn't pretty. In addition to cutbacks in programs and staffing (some of which has already occurred in anticipation of the looming shortfall) the council is looking to hike fees on a range of services, including water and sewer fees and roads. Perhaps the most controversial is a new "road tax" dubbed the Transportation Utility Fee, or TUF, as in "tough break for homeowners," who will see an estimated $3 surcharge on their monthly city utility bill if adopted. The fee is designed to address Bend's roughly $12.5 million street maintenance backlog that is expected to grow to more than $20 million within the next five years as the roads continue to deteriorate. Not all councilors are on board with the fee. Several councilors have advocated for a gas tax vote, which would arguably encourage conservation while rewarding those who drive less. It would also capture some revenue from Bend's year-round tourists who fill up at the local pumps. However, a gas tax, which requires voter approval, is seen by many as a political impossibility. On the other hand, the council has the ability to unilaterally adopt a road tax. If the city goes in that direction, Councilor Jim Clinton said he would at least like the city to consider adopting a fee for businesses that were exempted under the current proposal.
However, there's a chance that the city may be in line for some state transportation dollars that would help close a roughly $1.5 million gap in the city's road budget for the next biennium. If that happens, the city would likely shelve the TUF, Capell said.
"I would expect we would table it or walk away altogether. There's no reason to go through the political fight if we don't need it," he said.
The council is expected to take up the budget and fees resolution at its June 17 meeting.
More on the Metolius
As the legislature lurches toward the end of the session, there's still no final word on whether lawmakers will get behind Gov. Kulongoski's effort to curtail resort development in the basin, which is home to one of Oregon's few remaining healthy populations of bull trout and the epicenter of a massive salmon and steelhead reintroduction effort. The House Rules Committee invited testimony on the bill, which would restrict or outright block the development of two proposed resorts in the basin that have already been given the preliminary green light from Jefferson County. County officials reportedly showed up to Friday's hearing with some strong words for lawmakers, urging them to stay our of what JeffCo leaders see as a local issue. But state Democrats, led by Brian Clem (D-Salem), aren't backing down and the bill is expected to come out of committee for a full House vote, perhaps before the end of the week. It would also have to be approved by the Senate before the governor can sign it. Meantime, the clock is ticking with the session set to expire at the end of the month.