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THE CURSE OF REGIONAL GOVERNMENTS
By Bill Sizemore
May 21, 2003
Undoubtedly, taxpaying citizens would be furious at government’s ineptitude, if there was a two foot drop-off when the county road became a city street at the city limits sign. Stupid politicians, we would all say. Why don’t they get their act together?
It would also not be a good thing if the county’s four-foot sewer pipe had to drain into the city’s three-foot sewer pipe on its way to the waste treatment plant. Things could back up. Taxpaying citizens could get upset at the mess. “Why don’t those politicians get their act together,” we would ask.
Too much development upstream in the unincorporated area; not enough storm drains to handle the additional run-off, and the flooding in the urban neighborhoods downstream does millions of dollars in damage. Who’s to blame? Seems like a regional problem begging for a regional solution.
There are lots of reasons for politicians from competing or neighboring jurisdictions to get together and coordinate their policies. Lots of reasons at least to talk with one another. You know, a little communication, a little coordination, a little facilitation. With more than a thousand cities, counties and special districts overlapping one another across the state of Oregon, officials had better be talking to one another.
Actually, the federal government, which often chips in serious bucks to help fund local projects, started requiring such communication and coordination among local governments a long time ago. For decades, in fact, pretty much every major metropolitan area in the country has had a regional council of governments just for this purpose. It was allegedly a necessary development.
Like most government policies, however, this one too has run amuck, especially here in Portland, Oregon. Here, we have way too much of a supposedly good thing. In fact, we have created a monster.
Oregon has in its state constitution a provision authorizing not just a council of regional governments to meet and discuss and coordinate policies, but a full-fledged, duly elected regional government. The Portland area has an elected, seven-member council that has the authority to overrule all of the 23 cities and three counties within its boundaries. For those 23 cities and three counties, local control is all but gone. In fact, any service “Metro” declares regional in scope falls under their jurisdiction. The 23 cities and three counties are simply overruled. They don’t even have a collective veto.
Who decides where will future development occur? Metro. Which land will become urban and which will remain rural farm or forestland? Metro decides. The cities and counties have no choice but to go along. If a city thinks it needs to zone a tract of land for industrial use to attract new businesses and jobs, it has to go with hat in hand to the regional government. One city gets a new factory and an expanded tax base, while it’s neighbor is forced to lay off firefighters
The seven people on the elected board of Metro, the Metropolitan Service District, have more power than all the mayors and commissioners of all twenty-three cities and three counties combined.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of regional government, Oregon style, there’s a question you must be asking: Why would local voters allow such a thing to happen? Why give up their local control? Even liberal, big city voters in love with government, are brighter than that. Right? Actually, they may be. In all fairness to Portland area voters, they were deceived in the grandest of fashions.
Before Portland area voters gave metro a charter and all this new authority, the Portland area had a regional council of governments like the rest of country. Cooperation was voluntary. Officials from local governments and taxing districts met regularly to coordinate policies and share ideas. No city or county had to go along, if they didn’t want to. Everything was voluntary.
Problem was. Along the way, somebody forgot George Washington’s warning that government is not eloquence or persuasion, but force, the power to coerce. Why let some stubborn city or county stand in the way of progress? Why not give the regional government some teeth, so it could force its “worthy” policies on those local governments unwilling to cooperate?
When the new Metro charter appeared on the ballot, giving this new regional government all this expanded power, the ballot language describing the measure actually said that the new charter limited Metro’s power and gave the people more control over Metro. The people were deceived. Unwittingly, they voted to give a regional government power unprecedented in this country, and they did so thinking they were limiting it’s power.
Pretty clever, huh? The ballot language was technically accurate. All charters and constitutions are drafted to establish the limits of a government’s power. In the case of Metro, however, the limits being set represented a huge expansion in Metro’s powers. The entire exercise was a ruse. Metro exists today because it gave itself a ballot title that fooled people into thinking they were limiting its power.
Today, Metro runs the zoo, collects the garbage, runs the major auditoriums and exposition centers. Big deal. More importantly, however, Metro determines land use policy for the entire Portland area. This enormous power has not only all but destroyed local control, but has also created staggering potential for corruption. Allow me to explain.
Thanks to a state requirement, cities or metropolitan areas in Oregon must establish and maintain an urban growth boundary, a kind of circle around the urban area, into which pretty much all growth and development is forced. The idea, ill advised as it is, is to force growth into the urban areas, and prevent “sprawl” onto the surrounding farm and forestland. In the Portland area, it is the regional government, not the cities and counties, that decides where the growth will occur. Think about what this means.
If you limit the supply of land available for development, when there is a demand for additional developable land, the value of that land will increase. That’s as sure a law as the law of gravity. Accordingly, the value of the limited amount of land inside the urban growth boundary has increased dramatically. For example, over the past decade or so, the cost of a single-family, residential building lot in the Portland area has increased from about $19,000 a year ago to about $75,000 today, creating a drought of affordable housing.
When the Metro council votes to expand the urban growth boundary to increase the amount of developable land, it creates instant millionaires. Land outside the boundary remains mere farmland, valued at about $3,500 per acre. Land that is brought inside of the boundary increases in value overnight to more like $150,000 per acre, because it is now buildable.
No government should have the authority to make millionaires out of one guy and leave his neighbor across the street a poor dirt farmer. Imagine the advantage of knowing in advance where the expansion is going to occur. Imagine the value of having friends on the council. The foolishness of such policy reflects as poorly on the legislature that adopted it as the Metro council that implements it.
To make matter worse, Metro is today as it always has been, dominated by extremely liberal environmentalist types for whom land use policy is almost a religion. They see congestion as a good thing, “a sign of positive urban development.” They have declared war on the automobile, fighting the construction of highways, favoring instead light rail and other forms of mass transit. Their entire approach to land use policy can be summed up in the term “social engineering.”
They are the elites. The planners. They know what’s best for everyone else. They know how the masses should live; and that’s in high-density, planned communities, close to a light rail line. If you want a yard where the kids can play or a small farm with a horse, you are selfish. You are a waster.
Metro is an experiment in regional government. The first of its kind in the nation. Metro likes to say that people come from all over the country and from around the world to see what a great thing the Metro regional government has done in Portland, Oregon.
Truth is, most of the people who have sojourned to Oregon to study and admire this wonder called Metro are not regular folk. Quite the opposite. They’re mostly liberal politicians and land use planners from other cities and counties, all lusting after the kind of unprecedented power that Metro has to control where and how people live, with almost total disregard for property rights, the foundational cornerstone of all other liberties. Metro is a government planner’s dream come true.
In no other place in America have local officials seen so much local control handed over to a relatively obscure regional government, where seven relatively unknown individuals set policy that supercedes the authority of all the cities and counties in the region. In no other place have property rights been so diminished and the quality of life so diminished.
One final thing. Regional governments are more than just one more unnecessary layer of government. They are a very expensive proposition. Metro, the Portland area regional government that didn't even exist as a government twenty years ago, now has an annual budget running into the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Unprecedented power, tons of money, what more could a liberal politician ask for?
Some see Metro as a grand, even daring experiment in regional government. Many of us who live here see it as nothing more than an expensive, dismal failure; and one more threat to liberty.
© 2003 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved
Bill Sizemore is a registered Independent who
works as executive director of the Oregon Taxpayers Union, a statewide
taxpayer organization. Bill was the Republican candidate for governor
in 1998. He and his wife Cindy have four children, ages eight to thirteen,
and live on 36 acres in Beavercreek, just southeast of Oregon City, Oregon.
"Before we get into the nitty gritty of regional government, Oregon style, there’s a question you must be asking: Why would local voters allow such a thing to happen? Why give up their local control? Even liberal, big city voters in love with government, are brighter than that. Right?..."
"When the new Metro charter appeared on the ballot, giving this new regional government all this expanded power,...
The people were deceived."