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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

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Earthquake Preparedness: It Starts at Home

BEECNby Commissioner Steve Novick-- One of my highest priorities as a City Commissioner is to do what I can to ensure that Portland is better prepared to survive an earthquake. Geologists tell us that there is a 10 to 15 percent chance that a truly massive earthquake will strike Oregon, including Portland, in the next 50 years. If 10 to 15 percent (in other words, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 7) doesn't sound like much, consider the fact that your lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is about 1 in 84. And your lifetime risk of death by shark attack is 1 in 60,453. So if you're scared of car accidents, you should take the earthquake threat seriously. If you're scared of sharks, you should take the earthquake threat REALLY seriously.

There are many things that, ideally we should be doing to prepare for the earthquake, some of which would take what seem like unfathomable amounts of money. But here is one thing we can do that is both eminently doable and vitally important. We can preserve our neighborhoods by taking simple steps to ensure that tens of thousands of houses survive The Big One.

The city estimates that there are 105,000 Portland homes that were built before 1970 and therefore were probably not initially bolted to their foundations. That makes them highly vulnerable during a major quake; they could be knocked off their foundations and damaged to the point that they are uninhabitable. Of course, some homeowners have bolted their houses down in the years since they were built, but we don't know how many. The city's best estimate is that at least 50,000 homes are still not bolted down.

Fortunately, in most cases, it is not insanely expensive to bolt a house down. A local contractor that does a lot of seismic strengthening says the average cost is $3,400. For some people, that's a lot of money. But for people who can afford to spend $20,000 remodeling their kitchen, it's feasible. That's why the Bureau of Development Services, supported by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, is developing a strategy to make sure that whenever Portlanders apply for building/remodeling permits, they get information about the importance and relative ease of quake-proofing their homes.

The $170 million it would cost to bolt down 50,000 homes is also a mere fraction of what FEMA spends on some major disasters. That's why I asked our congressional delegation if the federal government could find some way to subsidize the cost of those retrofits, by providing no-interest or low-interest loans or direct cash subsidies. It would save FEMA a lot of money in the long run. In response to my request, the ever-energetic Congressman Blumenauer called together State and Federal disaster officials who said that if FEMA's "pre-disaster mitigation" program is reauthorized by Congress, the City and State should submit an application for a grant from the program. The State officials thought that we could make a strong case to get one of those grants. Congressman Blumenauer is going to fight hard to get that program reauthorized and I am confident the rest of our Congressional delegation will join him. Historically, the maximum grant under that program is about $3 million - but every bit helps. And maybe, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Congress might increase funding for disaster preparation programs.

Philanthropic organizations and individuals can also play a role in the effort. Phil Knight gave $100 million to Oregon Health & Science University. If he would pay the same amount to bolt down 29,411 houses, here's one vote for putting a swoosh on the entrance to City Hall.

Portland prides itself on its commitment to "sustainability." But a city that isn't prepared to survive an earthquake that we all know is coming isn't very "sustainable" at all. That's why the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is prepared to join Development Services and the Office of Emergency Management in educating Portlanders about this issue.

I hope you will join me and the City bureaus in spreading the word about earthquake preparedness, and especially the importance of bolting homes down. And if you see Congressman Blumenauer, give him an "atta boy" for taking this issue on.

120/80 = JOBS

INFOGRAPH: The Dollars and Sense of Chronic Diseasby Commissioner Steve Novick-- One of the biggest drags on our economy over the past 50 years - at the national, State and local level - has been the increase in health care costs. In 1968, we spent 8% of gross domestic product on health care. Today, it is 17 percent. That's far higher than in other industrialized countries. Here's one way of putting it into perspective: We spent about 4% of gross domestic product on K-12 education in 1968, and we still spend about 4% today - even though, in many ways, we expect a lot more out of our schools. The INCREASE in health care costs since 1968 is more than twice the TOTAL AMOUNT we spend on K-12.

Those rising health care costs are a burden on businesses, government, workers and families. If businesses didn't spend so darned much on health care, they'd be able to raise wages, invest more in research and development or charge less for their products. If government didn't have to spend so much on health care, governments could build more parks, do more for the homeless, pave more streets, reduce class sizes or raise wages. And if families didn't spend so much on health care, they could do tons of neat stuff too.

And if the City of Portland became #1 in the country at controlling health care costs, we'd have a big economic advantage over other places. Our existing businesses would have a leg up. We could attract new businesses by telling them their health care costs would be lower here, and that our schools and other services are better because we've redirected that health care spending to better services for the entire community.

(Not incidentally, if we were able to control health care costs by actually making people healthier, it would be a boon to City government itself, because it would reduce the workload of the Fire Bureau. The Fire Bureau these days gets far more calls about health-related emergencies than about fires.)

There are a lot of reasons health care costs are so high, and a lot of innovative ways that we can try to reduce them. (Note: "dumping costs onto employees" is not an innovative way to reduce health care costs; it's a cop-out.) City government itself can do a lot, for example by building more sidewalks to make it easier for kids to walk to school, which will make them healthier. We could build more bike infrastructure, to make it easier for people to bike to work and to the grocery store, which will make them healthier. Employers and workers can get together to design programs like the Atlantic City casino workers' union's wellness program/primary care clinic, which reduced the costs of the union's least healthiest members.

But one way we can all work to reduce health care costs is to take that simple step of getting our blood pressure under control. You can do that by diet and exercise, which is great. But even if you can't do that ... well, blood pressure drugs are cheap, and if you remember to take them, they work. In spite of that, 36 million Americans have untreated high blood pressure, even though 32 million of them have insurance.

So help me figure out how we can make Portland an economic powerhouse by reducing health care costs. And start by checking your blood pressure!

Our Goofy Property Tax System

City Property Tax Dollarsby Commissioner Steve Novick-- The novelist William Faulkner once wrote: "The past is never over. It's not even past." He could have been writing about Oregon's goofy, inequitable property tax system, which is governed by two ballot initiatives, Measure 5 passed in 1990 and Measure 47 passed in 1996. Since about 44 percent of Portland's General Fund (which pays for police, fire, parks, services for the homeless, and other vital services) comes from property taxes, the property tax system has a big impact on the City and the services it provides. Recently, I have gotten involved in discussions about whether and how to change the existing system, so I thought I'd take some space on my website to explain the basics as best I can.

Measure 5, passed in 1990, says that the tax on any piece of property cannot be more than $5 for every $1000 of the property's real market value for schools, and $10 for every $1000 of the property's real market value for all other local governments, such as cities and counties. If a piece of property is paying at least $10 for every $1000 in real market value for local governments and $5 for schools, the property is referred to as being "in compression." That means that even if a majority of voters in a district -- even including the owner of that property - vote to raise taxes for a specific purpose (like libraries, schools, or parks), the tax on that property cannot go up. So when there is such a vote, it raises taxes for some people but not others; it raises taxes for the people who are "not in compression," but not for the people who are "in compression."

But wait, you might ask, why isn't everyone either "in compression" or "not in compression" together? Why isn't everyone paying the same property tax rate per thousand dollars of real market value?

The answer lies in Measure 47, passed in 1996 (and slightly modified by Measure 50, a legislative referral passed by voters in 1997). Measure 47/50 said that the assessed value, for tax purposes, of a given piece of property cannot increase by more than 3% a year from its 1995 assessment, no matter how much the actual value of the property is going up. In Portland, property values in some recently gentrified areas, especially in North and Northeast Portland, have skyrocketed, far more than 3% a year on average since 1995. That means that property owners in those areas are paying very low tax rates - far lower than $10 per thousand real market value for cities and counties and $5 for schools. Meanwhile, property values in outer Southeast Portland, for example, generally have not gone up very much, so many property owners in that area are paying the maximum -- they are "in compression." In some cases, the differences are startling: you can literally have one property owner in the outer East Side paying $3,000 in taxes on a house that is actually worth $200,000, and someone in inner Northeast paying $600 in taxes on a house worth $300,000.

There is also a big difference in the tax rates that Multnomah County commercial property owners pay, compared to homeowners. Commercial property values, on average, have gone up faster than residential values since 1995. But their assessed values are tied to that 1995 assessment. According to the Multnomah County assessor, the average commercial property in the County is assessed at about 54% of real market value, and the average home is assessed at 74% of real market value. That means commercial owners are paying a much lower rate than homeowners.

Recently, the League Oregon of Cities proposed that the Legislature should ask Oregon voters to pass a change to Measure 5 that would say that voter-approved 'local option' taxes could be collected, in full, from property owners already 'in compression'; that if, for example, voters in a district voted to raise taxes for schools by $1 per thousand of assessed value, everyone should pay that amount, even if some of them are already paying the Measure 5 limit of $5 per thousand for schools. The Oregonian Editorial Board endorsed that idea, partly based on the argument that the current system is unfair because someone who is 'in compression' can vote for a tax increase without it affecting them; they can vote to raise other people's taxes but not their own.

I responded to the League and the Oregonian Editorial Board with the argument that if you allow local options to apply to people already paying the Measure 5 limit, and you continue to base tax rates on the goofy Measure 47 / 50 assessed value, you will make our existing inequities worse. If you have a $1 per thousand local option tax applied to assessed value, and you have two properties both actually worth $300,000, but one is assessed at $300,000 (and would be 'in compression' if not for the League's proposed change) and another is assessed at $60,000, the first property will pay $300 and the second will pay $60. I argued that if we're going to allow local options to be collected outside the Measure 5 limits, at least the tax rate should apply to real market value, not the goofy Measure 47 / 50 assessed value. That way everyone with the same property value would pay the same amount. The Oregonian Editorial Board has since said they think that idea is worth considering and the League is pondering it.

Making that change to 'local options' wouldn't eliminate the inequities in the taxes people pay through the 'permanent rates' for cities, counties, schools and local governments, which would still apply to assessed value. The League has another proposal, which I support, that would re-assess properties at their real market value when the property is sold - a concept called "reset at sale." Over time, that would reduce, although not eliminate, the geographic inequities caused by Measure 47 / 50.

We could ask the voters to simply eliminate Measure 47 / 50 and say that all property taxes should be based on real market value, effective immediately. One problem with that is that to some extent, the real estate market has probably adjusted the sales prices of houses to reflect the differing property taxes in each neighborhood; people in recently gentrified areas paid a premium for their low taxes, and it would be quite a shock to have their taxes suddenly go up by 500 percent (or whatever). I would like to see the relationship between assessed value and real market value restored, but I would be careful about doing it overnight. The League's "reset on sale" proposal, while not a cure-all, would move toward restoring that relationship without sudden huge increases in anyone's taxes. (I don't think the 'market adjustment' hypothesis is a good argument against my proposed change to local options, because the market could not anticipate all future local option taxes; there's no way they were baked into the sales price.)

Criminal Justice in an Age of Reduced Crime

by Commissioner Steve Novick-- Law enforcement is a major responsibility of the City. The Police Bureau is the largest General Fund bureau.

The good news in law enforcement is that crime is down - way down from 20 or 30 years ago. Police Chief Reese told the City Club in April 2011 that crime in Portland was at its lowest since 1967.

But the police still feel as busy as ever, largely because of the number of calls they get about 'quality of life' crime, or disturbances, many of them involving people with addiction or mental health problems. Sometimes, as you know, the interaction between the police and people with mental health and addiction issues has unfortunate results for all involved.

We need to improve the way the Police Bureau deals with people with mental illness and addiction. But ideally, we would reduce the number of times the police are acting as 'first responders' to mental health and addiction problems, by increasing the capacity of the County - which has the expertise, but not enough resources, to do that job. I would love for the City to be able to simply write the County a check - but this year, the City is going to be cutting its own budget substantially.

Governor John Kitzhaber, however, has recently, in his proposed State budget, raised another possibility: that the State could give counties more money for treatment and supervision of released offenders, and rehabilitation programs, if the counties stop increasing the prison population. (It's county officials - the DAs, the parole and probation system, and the judges - that send people to prison.) I think that's a great idea, and have been encouraging legislators to adopt the Governor's vision and encouraging County officials to take that deal. I think if the County had more resources for those services, it would reduce the workload of the Portland Police. (I asked Chief Reese how he would invest new money for prevention, and he immediately said 'treatment on demand.')

Some people argue that the only way to keep crime low is to keep sending more and more people to prison. I certainly recognize that some people need to go to prison, and in fact some people need to go there forever. But I think that in many cases, the public safety benefit of keeping someone in prison for 68 months instead of 56 months is outweighed by the good it would do to invest 12 “prison-months” worth of money in prevention. The way we now budget for public safety doesn't allow local officials to make those choices; local officials have, in effect, an unlimited budget for prisons - the State doesn't charge counties for sending people to prison - but a very limited budget for everything else. The Governor is pointing the way toward a system that would allow for deliberate trade-offs.

And there is, in fact, overwhelming evidence that an increasing prison population is NOT the only key to reducing crime. Yes, it's true that in the past 20 years Oregon has locked up a lot more people and crime has gone down. But as researcher Franklin Zimring demonstrated in his book "The Great American Crime Decline," there has been a dramatic drop in crime throughout North America since 1990 - including Canada, which did not have a prison boom. New York State in recent years has kept its crime rate low while reducing its prison population. And what about Oregon itself when in the late '60's, the last time crime was this low? We had one-seventh the prison population that we do today - 2,000 compared to today's 14,000. Yes, we also had half the general population that we do today - but that means that Oregon in the late '60's had the same crime rate with less than a third of the prison population (per capita).

The truth is, as Zimring says, nobody knows quite why crime has gone down so much throughout North America in the past twenty years. There are societal factors at work that we don't fully understand. But what we do know is inconsistent with the idea that it's all about the prisons.

I realize that since the City only has direct control over the police, it might seem odd for me to be talking about deals between the State and the County about prisons and prevention. But public safety is a multi-governmental enterprise. I think City officials have an obligation to engage in discussions about how to make the whole system work more efficiently and effectively.

I also realize that in the wake of the Clackamas Town Center and Newtown shootings, it may seem jarring to hear about crime being down. It is; overall, the trends and statistics are good. We are safer today than we were twenty years ago. But that does not mean that we should not take steps to reduce the likelihood of such horrific events ... like banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Again, that requires state legislative action; state law, unfortunately, generally prevents the City from adopting its own gun regulations.

What Does the City Do?

City of Portland Logoby Commissioner Steve Novick-- One of the most confusing things about being an American is how many different governments we have. Federal, State, County, City, school boards, Metro... Where does the City fit into it all?

There are some issues the City handles pretty much by itself - but not quite; other issues where the City plays one role as part of a bigger system involving multiple governments; and other issues where the City has no direct responsibility or authority, but has a big interest in them. Here are some examples:

The City is exclusively responsible for water and sewer service, and raises money for water and sewer from ratepayers. But the City has to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency standards for sewer and water systems, and in fact, some of the biggest and most controversial water and sewer projects the City has been involved in relate to EPA requirements.

The City has police, but the police are part of a larger public safety universe that includes a lot of County employees and offices -- the District Attorneys, the Sheriff, the jail, and parole and probation officers - and the State, which has prisons (for longer sentences) and the Attorney General. The Courts, meanwhile, are kind of joint County - State operations. One of my goals as a City Commissioner is to promote a closer and better integrated relationship between all parts of the public safety system. And one of my personal goals in life, as a guy who's interested in better public understanding of government, is to get Dick Wolf to change the intro to “Law and Order” to something like: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups. The police, City employees, largely paid for by property taxes, who arrest offenders, and the District Attorneys, County employees who are also largely paid for by property taxes, who prosecute them, and send them either to County jails, also largely paid for by property taxes, or State prison, which in most States are paid for by a combination of sales and income taxes, except in States that only have one of those two taxes."

The City is responsible for City streets, but some of the biggest streets in Portland, like Powell Boulevard and 82d Avenues, are actually State highways, and most of the money for City transportation projects (including basic street maintenance) comes from State and Federal gas tax revenue. Meanwhile, Tri-Met, which runs buses and light rail, is run by a separate board appointed by the Governor.

The City has the Fire Bureau, but these days the Fire Bureau has more medical calls than fire calls, so the Fire Bureau is part of the larger health care system, which includes private hospitals and doctors, the ambulance system, which is overseen by the County, and the federal Medicare and State Medicaid programs. One of my goals as City Commissioner is to see if the Fire Bureau can work more closely with the rest of the health care system to find efficiencies.

The City has parks, which are independent of other governments.... although the Parks Bureau is part of the City's work with other entities in the Intertwine Alliance, which works to increase visitation and investment in natural areas in the region as a whole.

The City provides shelters and other services for the homeless, but the County also has services for the homeless, and the Federal government provides much of the funding for low-income housing.

The schools are completely independent of the City ... but of course, the City has a huge interest in the strength of the schools.

The City does zoning and planning and permitting, but the zoning and planning fits within the broader zoning and planning goals set by the State and Metro.