Money

Will the PUC Make Oregon’s Solar Energy Incentives Equitable?

By Lydia White

In accordance with House Bill 2941, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is making recommendations to the Oregon State Legislature to ensure Oregon’s solar energy incentives are equitable, efficient, and effective.

One recommendation is to modify the compensation method for solar energy, net metering. Under net metering, solar owners consume energy their panels produce. When energy produced is insufficient, solar owners purchase additional energy from traditional sources. When excess energy is produced, solar owners sell energy. Solar owners are compensated at above-market rates and are exempt from paying their portion of incurred costs. Such costs include operation and maintenance of the grid and “spinning reserves,” the alternative power source utility companies run continuously in case solar produces less energy than projected. The state’s incentive structure shifts costs from solar owners to non-solar ratepayers. As the number of solar owners increases, ratepayers bear higher costs. The PUC is recommending these costs instead be shifted to taxpayers. While the PUC proposal’s efforts to alleviate inequity are commendable, their proposed recommendations still constrain Oregonians.

Although solar owners are double-dipping into the taxpayer pot—once when receiving heavily subsidized (and therefore low-cost) solar systems and again when receiving above-market compensation—the solar community is vehemently protesting. Despite the outcries, the PUC should pursue its recommendation to transition from net metering while also rejecting subsidies from ratepayers and taxpayers alike. By doing so, the PUC’s recommendations could relieve Oregon’s ratepayers from substantial burden.


Lydia White is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

“Beyond Traffic” Has a Different Meaning in Portland

Portland is one of seven cities still in the running for a $50 million grant as part of the “Beyond Traffic” challenge sponsored by the federal Department of Transportation.

While the idea of solving traffic congestion sounds great, that is not an actual goal of Portland planners. In fact, local officials are trying to make traffic worse, by downsizing roads and lowering traffic speeds. As part of this campaign, a northbound travel lane on Naito Parkway was recently removed, and later this year two lanes on Foster Road will be eliminated.

Portland planners think we drive too much, so they want $50 million in federal funds to develop new data collection systems to encourage people to travel by bus, train, or bike. Since most people prefer a car, this will be a big waste of public money.

The transportation challenge for Portland is the need for an expanded highway system. Experimenting with technologies such as electronic tolling as a way of paying for that expansion might have been a useful grant application. But Portland planners don’t want to grow the system; they’d rather keep it small and congested, then use fancy technology to entice a few people onto a slow bus.

This is not a plan that will move us “beyond traffic.”

Updated as of 6/22: According to The Oregonian, the U.S. Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the federal “Smart City-Beyond Traffic” competition.

With this distraction out of the way, perhaps city planners can turn their attention to something more useful, such as finding ways to actually reduce traffic congestion in Portland.

Earning Their Keep: Do Elected Officials in the Portland Region Show up for Meetings?

By Nick Pangares and John A. Charles, Jr.

Most elected officials who serve on school boards or city councils do not get paid for service. However, for at least five governing jurisdictions in the Portland metro region, councilors do receive compensation. Those jurisdictions are: the Commissions for Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties; the Portland City Council; and the Metro Council.

This research examined the attendance records for all regularly scheduled meetings for the five jurisdictions during 2014 and 2015. In some cases, there were also “board briefings” or “work sessions” to attend.

In general, most elected officials attended a high percentage of meetings, either by being present or by participating via telephone. Group participation rates usually exceeded 85%, on average.

Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski had the best attendance record of all elected officials over the two-year period – 100% for both years. Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack had the worst two-year record – 70% for board briefings, and 80% for board meetings. She is termed-out and not running for re-election.

Summaries of the attendance records for all elected officials are below. The numbers indicate the percent of meetings where the officials participated.

 

Clackamas County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Ludlow Savas Schrader Smith Bernard
2014 98% 100% 82% 89% 89%
2015 98% 95% 93% 93% 89%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
2014 100% 98% 88% 98% 86% 90% 83%
2015 n/a 92% 97% n/a 89% 95% 77%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Briefings

 

  Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
               
2014 100% 93% 83% 97% 94% 90% 70%
2015 n/a 100% 100% n/a 65% 90% 70%

 

 

Washington County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

  Duyck Malinowski Schouten Rogers Terry
           
2014 94% 100% 87% 87% 94%
2015 91% 100% 91% 88% 85%

 

 

Portland City Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hales Fish Fritz Novick Saltzman
           
2014 92% 83% 92% 94% 85%
2015 97% 92% 97% 92% 85%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 84% 97% 95% 97% 97% 97% 89%
2015 93% 98% 95% 98% 100% 98% 93%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Work Sessions

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 85% 94% 96% 96% 96% 96% 94%
2015 89% 93% 93% 95% 98% 91% 91%

 

While taxpayers probably expect officials to show up, does attendance really matter? That depends. Strictly speaking, yes. Each body must have a quorum of members present to conduct business. If too many officials skip meetings, decisions can’t be made. So even if individual commissioners are ineffective, a minimum number of them are needed at any given meeting.

Moreover, at most public meetings where agenda items will be voted on, public testimony will be taken. Constituents have a right to expect that when they take the trouble to show up with prepared testimony, elected officials will be there to listen.

However, attendance has little to do with influence or effectiveness. Public meetings are a form of street theatre; all the key decisions have been made ahead of time behind closed doors. So an elected official with a spotty attendance record could easily be the most important member of the body – it’s just that the heavy lifting is being done out of sight.

For example, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman had the lowest two-year record of attendance among all City Commissioners, but few observers would consider him ineffective. To the contrary, he may be the most influential member of the Council, especially with a Mayor who is not running for re-election.

Metro Presiding Officer Tom Hughes also had the worst attendance record among his peers. Yet any Council member hoping to advance new policy would hardly consider Councilor Hughes unimportant.

There are also extenuating circumstances. What we see may not reflect the whole story. According to Commissioner Malinowski:

“The issue of absences turns out to be apples and oranges most of the time. This is partially because 4 out of the 5 commissioners are part time, and most of the time the reason Commissioners miss meeting is because of prior obligations regarding outside County business. If you compare absences with the schedule of each commissioner, this is usually the case. However, meeting attendance and communication is critical, particularly when technical questions about County business need to be answered.”

When asked if there should be a required minimum participation rate for meetings, Commissioner Malinowski responded:

“Overall the honor system of attendance is working, and I don’t see a need for a minimum attendance rate requirement. Many times what happens is the Commission will cancel meetings if two or more Commissioners are going to be absent. This usually happens on Tuesday evening meetings.”

The value of attendance is ultimately determined by voters. Those who are satisfied with the performance of their representative may overlook a mediocre participation rate.

However, voters should remember two things. First, for the five jurisdictions featured in this report, elected officials get paid to show up. They are not volunteers.

Second, attendance does matter. If everyone takes a night off, no business gets transacted. And running a government entity is a business.

About the authors: Nick Pangares is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and also serves on the board of a rural water district in Clackamas County. Volunteer Bob Ludlum assisted with data gathering for this report.

Portland Chases Another Dream

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that Portland is one of seven cities still in the running for a $50 million grant as part of DOT’s “Smart Cities” challenge. Portland is proposing to build “smarter streets” that talk to self-driving cars and to develop an app that will decrease reliance on private automobiles.

This is not a joke, and it’s not another episode of Portlandia. There are actually federal bureaucrats who think that putting sensors in streets to talk with computerized cars is important, and that Portland is capable of running such a system.

Apparently, they are unaware that Portland’s street system is so run down that the city could be the film location for a Mad Max movie.

And given the region’s obsession with 19th century street cars that move more slowly than pedestrians, why would anyone think Portland is capable of being a national leader in 21st century roads?

This is a city that tried to prevent car-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft from legally operating here last year. No fancy street sensors were required; the necessary smart phones were already in the hands of potential customers. All the City Council needed to do was get out of the way, and even that was too complicated for them.

We should let Google worry about autonomous cars. Portland should stick to something simple, like filling potholes.

Does PCC-Sylvania Need a Light Rail Tunnel?

By Emma Newman

Metro and TriMet are jointly considering an expansion of the light rail system to PCC-Sylvania in SW Portland, by building a tunnel to the campus from Barbur Boulevard. The tunneling would have a significant impact on the surrounding neighborhood, forcing many homeowners to move away while still requiring PCC students to make a long walk to their classes.

Currently, 84 percent of PCC students drive to school, even with the campus being served by both shuttles and busses. If this tunnel plan is chosen, Oregon taxpayers will be saddled with paying half of the two billion dollar cost.

When asked at what point the costs of building new transit outweigh the benefits, a Metro spokesperson responded that “transportation planning is more an art than a science.”

An alternative plan under consideration is a rapid bus line which would also service PCC-Sylvania. While this would be about half the cost and much less inconvenient than digging a rail tunnel, it still would be a response to a need that doesn’t exist.

Despite the low ridership of current transit options, transportation officials continue to follow the mantra of “if you build it they will come,” rather than follow the laws of supply and demand.

Emma Newman is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank. She is a student at George Fox University, where she is studying Economics and Computer Science.

Why Do City Leaders Keep Portland in the “Transportation Dark Ages?”

In November, Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Tigard joined Vancouver, Washington in welcoming ridesharing juggernaut Uber to operate legally in their cities. Last weekend, Uber began operating in Portland without permission, in effect daring the authorities to stop it. While the City has issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber, more than 10,000 people have signed an online petition asking Mayor Hales to let the company operate in Portland.

Until now, most major cities have granted virtual monopolies to a few taxicab companies on the assumption that government must protect both the livelihoods of drivers and the safety and convenience of passengers within their jurisdictions. But in a truly free economy, we should celebrate the technological innovation that allows people with cars to make money by giving rides to people who want them.

The “sharing economy” stems from the realization that all of us own assets that we may not use all the time, whether it’s a spare bedroom in your home (think Airbnb), or an automobile that sits in your driveway for hours a day. It’s time for Portland to live up to its hype and let young (and not so young) creatives do what they do best—create services that the rest of us want and need. It’s time to legalize transit freedom and bring Portland out of the Transportation Dark Ages.

No New Street Fee: City Council Should Approve Street Maintenance from the General Fund

Last week Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick suggested that the City Council approve $7 million in General Fund dollars to help pay for street maintenance. The City expects to have a surplus of some $9 million this fall, allowing new discretionary requests from individual bureaus.

Such a transfer would be far preferable to enacting a street tax, which has been widely opposed. Continuing to push the tax would be divisive and a huge waste of time for the hundreds of city residents who would show up to oppose it. Street maintenance is one of the most basic responsibilities for any municipality. Therefore, it is appropriate to use property tax dollars from the General Fund to maintain the road network.

Moreover, the City Council has an abysmal track record of managing dedicated transportation user fees. This was highlighted in a report issued last year by the Portland City Auditor, showing that dedicated transportation revenues had been going up over the last decade, while actual spending on road maintenance had dropped. This conclusion makes any proposed tax increase a non-starter.

The unexpected budget surplus gives the Council a graceful way to put the street tax proposal to bed. They should take the opportunity and move on.

The Portland Seed Fund: Lots of Fertilizer, Little Growth

By Joel Grey

The Portland Seed Fund (PSF) started in 2011 as a joint public-private venture intended to close a funding gap for entrepreneurs attempting to start a business. It invests $25,000 in each selected startup and reserves money for follow-up investments. The City of Portland, the City of Hillsboro, and the State of Oregon diverted tax dollars to underwrite the majority of the cost for the first Seed Fund and a significant portion of the second Seed Fund. This totaled $3.4 million through 2014.

Another $100,000 was proposed in the requested budget for the Portland Development Commission (PDC) this year. The 2014-2015 budget has been adopted but does not specify whether funding for the PSF is included. The PDC has ignored multiple requests for comment. The City of Portland and the Oregon Growth Account are the two biggest sponsors, both putting in $1.5 million or more.

Portland obtains its money from taxpayers directly; the Oregon Growth Account is a state-run venture capital fund using dollars appropriated from the Oregon Lottery.

The Seed Fund was promoted as a way for public entities to help private companies get started, with the expectation that the Fund would eventually earn money. However, it is not possible to determine whether the Seed Fund is earning a positive rate of return, or even what is being done with its money, despite the fact that it utilizes public funds.

The Seed Fund does not publicize which businesses are still open, and even when contacted did not respond to requests for its return on investment (ROI). The public entities were unable to provide the Fund’s ROI as well. The City of Hillsboro communicated that it was not able to invest directly, but had used an intermediary that would also receive any ROI. Various people at the City of Portland, including several at the City Budget Office and the PDC, were also unable to supply an ROI; some did not know what the ROI was and others have simply not responded to information requests.

Out of the 46 companies funded, most appear to still be open; but one has closed, another has moved to California, and two more appear to have closed, lacking corporation status, websites, and offices.

Regarding the funds spent by Hillsboro and Portland, Article XI Section 9 of the Oregon Constitution states: “[n]o county, city, town or other municipal corporation, by vote of its citizens, or otherwise, shall become a stockholder in any joint company, corporation or association, whatever, or raise money for, or loan its credit to, or in aid of, any such company, corporation or association.” Portland and Hillsboro got around this provision by giving their initial offerings to the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, which then gave the money to the Seed Fund.

For the second Seed Fund, the City of Portland created its own intermediary, the Portland Economic Investment Corporation, which will be the group that handles the investment.

When asked, the City of Hillsboro said that it is not an investor; but by any standard of common sense it is. The city appropriated money for the Seed Fund, and the intermediary is just a screen. The money was always intended for the Seed Fund.

The managers of the Fund have admitted “[t]he Seed Fund could exist without public money.” This begs the obvious question: Then why is public money involved? If a private enterprise can exist without public money, for what reason is the public money involved?

The Portland Seed Fund is an example of “mission creep” in government. The three jurisdictions that launched this Fund have important work to do in such areas as law enforcement and protection of property. There is no reason to spend public money on non-essential and highly risky tasks such as equity investing in new private companies. The Portland Seed Fund should be shut down, and a full accounting of its spending should be provided to taxpayers.

Joel Grey is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

A Prescription for Affordable Housing in Portland

A new issue faces Portland. City Hall is considering waiving development fees for developers of market-rate housing in the Old Town Chinatown district. Chinatown is Portland’s oldest neighborhood and has earned an unpleasant reputation. City Hall claims that waiving these fees, which cover a project’s impact on urban infrastructure, can stimulate building in Chinatown. In the past, only developers of so-called “affordable housing” have been granted this waiver.

Critics argue that this is an expensive subsidy for big businesses which aren’t providing affordable housing. However, they assume that market-rate rent is permanent, no matter how much housing is built. This may not be true. As the supply of market-rate apartments increases in Chinatown, the market rate can be expected to decrease. Essentially, housing is made affordable by supplying more of it.

Waiving fees deprives certain city bureaus of funds; but perhaps these funds could be better spent, in this case, by private developers. If the City wishes to revitalize Chinatown, it needs to encourage more people to live there, and the best encouragement is lower rent. This can be accomplished by decreasing development fees and encouraging construction. More housing and lower rents could be good for Portland.

Everet Rummel is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Portland Public Schools’ New Ombudsman Should Be Independent

By Joel Grey

In response to parent complaints, Portland Public Schools will create a new ombudsman position. An ombudsman is a person within an organization who provides accountability and investigates complaints.

It’s a good thing for public schools to have an ombudsman. An ombudsman is dedicated to listening to parents’ concerns and preventing abuses within the system. Accountability is important because people will often get away with whatever they are able to, and an ombudsman makes it harder to escape independent oversight.

The problem here is that the school district has placed the ombudsman within the public relations department, reporting directly to chief of community involvement and public affairs, rather than to the superintendent. The job of public relations isn’t to investigate and stop abuses within the system; it’s to improve the public’s view of the schools. Placing an ombudsman in a PR department makes it appear to parents that the position is just for show.

An ombudsman should be as independent as possible and report to the highest level of an organization―in this case, directly to the superintendent. This is what Newark Public Schools does, and it is a common practice. Without independence, the ombudsman may appear to parents to be simply a tool to placate their criticisms without effecting real reform.

Joel Grey is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

1 2 3 5