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By Janie Har November 1, 2011

Does Clackamas County have more urban renewal debt than all the other counties combined?

Under the state constitution, cities and counties have the ability to set up urban renewal districts to combat blight. The financing works like this: The city or county authorizes a blighted area and "freezes" the amount of property tax going to public services, such as schools,fire, police and other city or county services. The property owner doesn’t pay any less. But as the value of the property goes up, the difference between the "frozen" amount and the new value is diverted to pay for future development within the blighted area, for a period of 20 or 25 or 30 years. Think of South Waterfront in Portland or Clackamas Town Center.

In Clackamas County there’s a fierce battle on the Nov. 8 ballot over who gets to designate new urban renewal areas and change the ones that exist. Currently, the five-member county board decides, upsetting critics who like neither the board nor the concept of urban renewal. (They think urban renewal development sucks money from other public services; fans of urban renewal say those services will eventually benefit from increased property values brought about by the development.)

A citizen group supported by the Clackamas County Republican Party worked to put Measure 3-386 on the ballot. This would require a majority vote countywide to create future urban renewal districts or to substantially change one. In response, the county board put competing measure 3-388 on the ballot, requiring approval only from people who live within the boundaries of a proposed urban renewal district. Neither measure affects the ability of cities within the county to form renewal areas.

"Urban renewal debt hurts Police, Fire, Schools and other services by diverting taxes that fund these critical functions across the county," reads a statement by the Clackamas County Republican Party. "Measure 3-386 requires approval from Clackamas voters to determine when and where to support urban renewal. This is especially important since Clackamas County has more urban renewal debt than ALL the other Oregon counties combined. ‘A county debt deserves a county wide vote,’ stated John Lee, Chairman of the Clackamas County Republican Party."

We were surprised by the statement. How could Clackamas County have more urban renewal development than all the other counties in Oregon combined, including Multnomah County, whose boundaries include the Portland Development Commission?  Lee challenged PolitiFact Oregon to check it out. We obliged.

We contacted the Oregon Department of Revenue, which collects property tax statistics. It turns out there are more than 70 government entities that operate more than 100 urban renewal plan areas in Oregon. In 2010-11, there was nearly $180 million in "revenue from excess value" collected to pay the debt on the bonds and other expenses of urban renewal projects.

But of those more than 70 entities in 2010-11, all but four are cities. In other words, very few counties have urban renewal programs. Clackamas County’s two plans generated about $9.5 million that year to pay for urban renewal. Columbia County was next with $482,000; Coos County with roughly $115,000; and Hood River County with $75,000. So yes, if you count county to county, Clackamas County collected more revenue than the other three counties combined.

Clackamas County is on par with the City of Salem, at $9 million. Wilsonville, a city within Clackamas County, is at $6.5 million. All government entities pale next to Portland, at $96 million.

Most counties do not create urban renewal areas because blight is in cities. Portland, Troutdale and Gresham -- all in Multnomah County --all use urban renewal financing to develop parts of their cities. Clackamas County, on the other hand, has more unincorporated areas.

We called Lee of the GOP. He says the statement clearly refers to the county as a government body, separate from any cities. In his defense, he does say in the statement that "a county debt deserves a county wide vote." That line reminds us that both ballot measures are about county-issued debt, and have nothing to do with city urban renewal projects.

But when we read the statement, we thought of Clackamas County as a geographic region, not as a government entity. Read that way, the idea that Clackamas County and all the cities inside the county would have more money tied up in urban renewal projects than Portland and Multnomah County was ridiculous. We think most people would agree with our interpretation.

We rate the statement Half True: Partially accurate, but leaving out a pretty important detail.

Return to OregonLive to comment on this PolitiFact/Oregon ruling.

Our Sources

Clackamas County Republican Party, press release, Sept. 28, 2011
Clackamas County website, "Clackamas County Development Agency"
Oregon Department of Revenue, "Urban renewal"
Oregon Department of Revenue, "Property Tax Annual Statistics FY 2010-11"
Emails from and interview with Kyle Easton, Department of Revenue, Oct. 4-6, 25, 2011
Interview with Greg Kramer, Department of Revenue, Oct. 26, 2011
Emails from and interview with John Lee, Oct. 3, 26, 2011
Email from and interview with Kate Porsche, vice president of the Association of Oregon Redevelopment Agencies, Oct. 25, 2011
Interview with Michael Eliason, Association of Oregon Counties, Oct. 25, 2011
Interview with Dan Johnson, Clackamas County Development Agency, Oct. 27, 2011
Email from Eric Winters, attorney, Oct. 27, 2011

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