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By Dana Tims December 4, 2013

Could Clackamas County residents have received nearly $48 million for police, fire and schools?

Local governments have long relied on urban renewal districts to redevelop blighted areas.

The districts temporarily freeze the amount of property taxes collected for public services such as police, fire protection and schools, then redirect the money to improvement projects inside the district. The tax base is unfrozen when the district ends, allowing public service providers to begin collecting taxes on the new, higher property values.

Urban renewal has become a hot-button issue. Critics, including some in Clackamas County, say it gives government unchecked power to spend money without sufficient oversight and that it amounts to a giveaway to developers.

Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas, who is running for re-election, was targeted in a recent flier from the Tigard-based Freedom and Responsibility PAC. The flier, among other things, said Savas helped table a motion under which "Residents could have received nearly $48M for Local Schools, Fire District, Sheriff’s Dept. and Social Services."

The flier noted that the money would have come from the Clackamas Town Center Urban Renewal District, which formed in 1980 and ended in June with money left over. With local service providers seemingly straining for every cent these days, we decided to check whether Savas actually voted to deny them $48 million in unspent urban renewal money.

According to the flier, here’s where most of that money would have gone if not for Savas’ vote: $20 million to the North Clackamas School District; $8 million to Clackamas Fire District #1; $8 million to the Sheriff’s Office; and $8 million to Clackamas County’s general fund.

The remaining $4 million, according to county documents, would go to the other 13 overlapping taxing entities that operated within the urban renewal district.

We called Savas, who was part of a 3-2 majority that voted to table a motion to return the $48 million in unspent urban renewal district money. It made sense, he said, to use the unspent money on needed but not yet approved projects in the district.

Shortly after tabling the motion, the board, by the same 3-2 split, authorized two road projects inside the district totaling $9.2 million. A discussion is set for early next year on what to do with the remaining $38.8 million.

Savas took issue with two of the flier’s key points: that the money could have been returned to "residents" and that $48 million was eligible for return.

He cited an email from Clackamas County Assessor Bob Vroman noting that Oregon law prohibits returning unspent urban renewal money directly to citizens. Instead, it has to go back to the individual service providers. State officials confirmed that prohibition.

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So residents would not have gotten a kicker-style check. On the other hand, taxpayers are residents, and they would have seen a benefit had agencies they support received millions of dollars.

On the other point, Savas said his vote actually saved Clackamas County residents nearly $20 million. Why? Because the $20 million claimed on the flier as destined for the North Clackamas School District actually would have gone to the State School Fund.

Savas forwarded an email from Michael Wiltfong, the Oregon Department of Education’s school finance director, who estimated that the North Clackamas District would have gotten only $600,000 of that $20 million. Information compiled by the county put the figure closer to $330,000.

As for the flier’s other claims:

$8 million for "Fire": Information compiled by Dan Johnson, the county Development Agency’s manager, sets the figure at $6.95 million.

$8 million for "Sheriff": Johnson’s number is $4 million, but there’s a big caveat. The money would go only to the Clackamas County Enhanced Law Enforcement District, which provides services only for unincorporated Clackamas County and the cities of Happy Valley and Johnson City.

$8 million for "Clackamas County": This refers to the county’s general fund. Johnson’s number is $7.8 million -- the same if rounded up.

We called Richard Burke, treasurer for the Freedom and Responsibility PAC, for a response.

"I recognize that only a portion of this money would go to local schools," said Burke, a self-professed Libertarian who lives in Beaverton. "But I stand behind my point that there’s a pot of money that could have gone back to taxing districts if not for Paul’s vote."

In a followup email, Burke defended his $8 million figure for the sheriff, citing Sheriff Craig Roberts’ comments during budget hearings this year that his office was likely to get a good chunk of the $7.8 million headed to the general fund -- if commissioners had voted to return the money. But even if the money had gone to the fund, a sheriff’s office spokesman said, it would have been a "commissioners’ decision on how to spend it."

The flier lists four figures. One -- the amount that would have gone to the general fund -- was accurate, and another -- the amount for fire services -- wasn’t far off. The figure given for the sheriff’s office was inaccurate and oversimplified, though, and the figure for schools was wrong in amount and recipient.

On the other point, residents would have seen a benefit from the return of the money, but it wouldn’t have been given directly to them.

We rate the claim Mostly False because it contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts.

Our Sources

Telephone interview with Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas, Nov. 25, 2013.

Email exchange with Savas, Nov. 26, 2013.

Telephone interview with Richard Burke, Freedom and Responsibility PAC treasurer, Nov. 26, 2013.

Email exchange with Burke, Nov. 27, 2013.

Telephone interviews with Dan Johnson, Clackamas County Development Agency manager, Nov. 27, 2013, Dec. 2, 2013.

Email from Michael Wiltfong, Oregon Education Department School Finance Unit director (provided by Savas), May 9, 2013.

Email from Bob Vroman, Clackamas County assessor (provided by Savas), April 25, 2013.

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