Eugene officials discuss how to pay for more climate change, homelessness projects – The Register-Guard

Eugene officials have options to raise more money and consistently fund initiatives to address climate change and homelessness, but first they want to know where the money would go.

There are several funding options — most involve raising taxes — and many of those options would need voter approval.

Voters, who have told Councilor Greg Evans they’re “tax fatigued” and “tapped out,” are likely to want the same information the council requested.

“If people feel tapped out, they’re less likely to support any kind of revenue measure that goes on the ballot. What I think we have to do is follow the same strategies that we did with the road fund and the bond measure that we passed,” Evans said during a recent work session. “Our citizens need to see what they’re going to get for their money. They want to see that return on investment.”

There are a variety of possible investments, staff told councilors during that work session, including spending on energy efficiency, efforts to increase the level of urban forestry, and enhance resiliency, active transportation and business engagement.

Staff are working to come up with an actionable project list, with community input, to figure out where money could do the most good and is most needed. Then they would come up with estimated costs to determined the level of necessary funding.

Lots of possible investment strategies

Councilor Alan Zelenka suggested the work session, which delved into funding options for initiatives around both climate change and homelessness. The two don’t necessarily have to be combined, he said, but he thinks they should be on “parallel tracks.”

His intent was for the work session to determine whether councilors think initiatives to address both crises need dedicated funding and, if so, to give staff “direction to develop an actionable project list.”

Discussion about how to develop and structure possible funding will come later, he said.

There are plenty of possible investments, Finance Director Twylla Miller told councilors, including:

  • Stabilizing funding to address homelessness
  • Operating a navigation center that’s set to open next year
  • Building permanent supportive housing
  • Providing staffing for ongoing and expanded work to help the unhoused
  • Increasing the rate of urban forestry
  • Enhancing environmental resiliency
  • Mitigating natural hazards
  • Building electric vehicle and mobility infrastructure
  • Supporting active transportation
  • Increasing energy efficiency
  • Engaging with businesses on climate issues

The council’s discussion focused largely on homelessness, including the need for permanent, supportive housing.

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But dealing with homelessness isn’t just about throwing more money at the problem, councilors said.

“I don’t think the biggest problem in dealing with homelessness is not having enough money,” Councilor Mike Clark said. “I think it’s how we, as a council, weigh in ourselves toward enabling people to stay stuck and unwell, personally.”

Others acknowledged a lot of residents, no matter their views on homelessness, aren’t happy with the way the city has been handling the crisis. The city needs to “build up credibility” in dealing with homelessness, Councilor Claire Syrett said.

Many councilors support — or at least aren’t against — spending more money but said they want to make sure the efforts are valuable and don’t fix problems that other units of government, like the state or county, should be tackling.

“I’m not opposed to raising more money, but I want to make sure we know what we’re spending it on,” Councilor Randy Groves said. 

Mayor Lucy Vinis said she understands the concerns about accountability and “what we are getting for the price” but pointed out the crisis is only getting worse.

“We’re recognizing that we’re putting more into this than ever before. We’re looking to the county to put more into this than ever before,” Vinis said. “We have a dire situation.”

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Bonds, levies and tax increases options for raising funds

If officials choose to raise more money to address climate change and homelessness, they have several options, according to Miller’s presentation.

They could fund capital costs through a bond, she said, which could require voter approval depending on the type of bond. Temporarily increasing property taxes to repay certain type of bond wouldn’t contribute to the tax rate limit of $10 per $1,000 real market value.

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That limit would apply if the city asked for a levy to fund operating costs.

Between city and county levies, the tax rate sits around $9.45 per $1,000 of assessed value, Miller said. That leaves the city the ability to raise around $9.6 million without going above the limit, she said, assuming there aren’t other new levies or increases to existing levies.

There are many other options, which could be used instead of or in addition to a bond or levy, she said, including a luxury tax, parking tax, payroll tax, personal income tax, restaurant tax, red light cameras, special districts and the transient room tax.

Clark doesn’t think bonds and levies would help the city get to the right place because they “just increase the cost of housing.”

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And Councilor Matt Keating pointed out while levies for “beloved institutions” like libraries go over well with voters, other things don’t.

“I haven’t seen polling to suggest that voters are ready to get behind, as great as the ideas and concepts are, funding unhoused solutions as well as an abatement to climate change at the same time through their property taxes,” Keating said.

Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at mbanta@registerguard.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeganBanta_1.