Friday, April 19, 2019

City Council, April 22nd - Weeding and Congestion

If only we attacked the problem of too many cars with the same zealous energy we are attacking the "problem" of too many books. The inversion in priorities says so much about us.

On Monday Council will meet, and they will assess the latest rationalization and modernization scheme at the Library as well as get an update on the recommendations from the Congestion Task Force.

Trying too hard to keep up with the "latest"
April 2nd, 1919
A century ago, local librarians followed "the librarians back east" in advocating for a "natural way" of phonetic spelling. It was the latest and best theory! Keep up with the times!

We all know how this attempt at rationalization turned out.

Now, we have another attempt at a misguided modernization scheme. From here The Big Weed looks like more like high-concept "cotzj chez" than real cottage cheese, and Council should ask for course-correction on this fad.

A resolution from SCAN summarizes much of the case.

From SCAN's resolution in critique of the Big Weed
A senior librarian, 16 years with the City and with intimate knowledge of internal processes and Salem's usage, writes:
I have several concerns, including the “collection evaluation” project, the numerous unfilled librarian positions, and the removal of the reference desk. The most urgent is the "collection evaluation"....The new City Librarian... is undertaking a huge “collection evaluation” project without enough replacement book money. In addition, I believe her philosophy of “new and popular” above all else will lead to a possibly irreversible decline in the library’s collection.
However fusty an attachment to old books might seem, old books are expensive and hard to replace once discarded. (Consider recent fires at Notre Dame and the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro for a catastrophically more intense form of this same kind of loss.) They also have useful information in them, historically illuminating even when the bare "facts" themselves might be out of date. More than this, as the resolution from SCAN suggests, in comparison with peer libraries, in our practices, standards, and funding we are behind or deficient. Our Library's current enthusiasm for weeding seems more impoverishing than improving, and hopefully Council will step in with corrective action.

(Update: Save our Books points out this is an "information item" only, a report on continuing the weeding program, and not an action item asking for Council explicitly to confirm the Big Weed or to give corrective direction. So that's an interesting, even sneaky, maneuver that I missed.)

There's no need to stop maintenance weeding itself, but there is great need for a more thoughtful approach away from the clear-cutting mode.

As it has been easy for the Library to reduce book holdings, it has been difficult for the City to reduce car trips. Sure, books and cars are different, and there is no Roads Czar equivalent in power to a City Librarian. But the difference still is telling.

Council will also get an update on the recommendations from the Congestion Relief Task Force. Already, it's a slog. There are four items called out in the update.
  • Most surprising, and therefore most interesting, is skepticism from the Parks and Recreation Board about bike/walk park and ride for Wallace Marine Park. They aren't saying "no," but they aren't saying "yes," either; instead, they call for more study. They are worried about limiting regular park users. So I guess we need parking lot counts. Isn't the bulk of park use on evenings and weekends, not Monday-Friday during the workday? Count data should clear this quickly. But I wonder, too, if it's another expression of our fondness for ornamental emptiness: Even if no one is using the parking lot, we have to keep it empty for potential use. The park and space must always be available in theory. How this conversation develops will be interesting to follow. 
  • Skepticism from the Parks and Recreation Board on opening Musgrave Avenue is easier to follow. They argue that this needs to be linked with any work on Marine Drive, and that anything on Marine Drive should have priority with Musgrave a secondary project.
  • On downtown parking there is an excerpt from Alternate Modes Study from 2010, which should prompt the question: Why aren't we doing these things already? The SRC was specifically structured to avoid having to implement anything from that Study, and that's a major element in the SRC's bad faith and hinky analysis. There was a road map in 2010, and the City, ODOT, and SKATS just blew it off.
  • And then there is the full summary update on all 17 recommendations. It offers little clarity on next steps for Marine Drive; mentions a meeting on the 29th with ODOT to discuss several of the items, before which there was little meaningful to say; and outlines bureaucratic and budgetary difficulties on several others. Decongestion pricing, friends! So many of these things get simpler or even are unnecessary, if we just priced roads right. (See the recent piece on Ben & Jerry's theory of Transportation Economics.)
Other Transportation Items

Council looks to set a Public Hearing on May 13th for the recently proposed code amendments with better bike parking. It looks like a modest improvement, but it could have been more. One adjustment made by the Planning Commission is a bummer:
Revise the proposed bicycle parking area access requirements under SRC 806.060(b) to remove the proposed language requiring bicycle parking areas to be designed so as not to require users to lift their bikes over curbs, barriers, or the bike rack itself, and instead require bicycle parking areas to be designed so as to not require users to lift their bikes over multiple stairs or the bike rack itself.
Especially once you are loaded, a small curb cut is helpful
The recent installation at the Saturday Market illustrates ways that lifting over curbs just ads friction and drag to a bike trip. You should be able just to roll up to the racks. Here you have to use the crosswalk ramp, the driveway ramp, or lift over the curb. Even if one lift in isolation seems trivial, instead of systematically reducing the barriers to bike trips, we just pile up the sludge to make them inconvenient and annoying. We are far from making biking and walking trips lovely and the preferred choice for short trips.

Park Front also has curbs and walls, requiring a lift
(the wall is also too close to the rack)
Hopefully school advocates, maybe even the Safe Routes folks, will comment on the part of the changes to bike parking that involve schools. The reduction seems concerning, but maybe school advocates have negotiated, and accepted or supported it.

Separately, there is formal adoption of the sidewalk plan. Again, a modest improvement, but it also could have been so much more. (See previous notes here.)

In the administrative purchases by the City there is a $62k contract with DKS for "Design of the Bicycle Signal & Traffic Analysis for Commercial Street SE to Winding Way SE." I hope this is for the wye-intersection with Liberty between Alice and Hansen. It would be very interesting if there was something at Winding Way itself - but this seems unlikely.

(And an aside: In the administrative purchases there is also a $90k contract with the Center for Hope & Safety for "Center for Hope & Safety Demolition Project." Why is the City paying them for demolition?)

Other Matters

There are two matters that deserve closer looks.

Out at the Mill Creek Corporate Center there is a $5.7 million project to "construct wetlands and add graded fill." This is a subsidy that should be added to the other infrastructure subsidy and Enterprise Zone property tax abatements. This looks like an instance of the Suburban Ponzi Scheme in action! It's also evidence that this land isn't great for industry anyway.

Dead at the Sculpture Garden in March - an ornamental emptiness!
The Conference Center remains a mystery. There is a proposal to study further upgrade and expansion:
Authorize the use of up to $80,000 of unallocated Riverfront-Downtown Urban Renewal Area funds for a benefit cost analysis for a potential future expansion of the Salem Convention Center....

The Salem Convention Center (Convention Center) includes an expansion area that is currently used for outside seating and a sculpture garden. Convention Center Management believes a substantial expansion to the facility is needed to accommodate diversity in demand and remain competitive as new and expanded convention centers are entering the regional market.

Based on very preliminary estimates from City staff, Convention Center staff, and consultants, an expansion project would be in the range of $10,000,000 to $12,000,000.

The benefit cost analysis would include the Convention Center’s revenue growth potential, community benefit of the public investment, the economic risk of not expanding the facility, and other factors. The analysis would inform the Downtown Advisory Board and Urban Renewal Agency Board’s future decisions regarding a Convention Center expansion.
The Sculpture Garden is dead space, and it has not been clear that the Conference Center is the best and highest use for that downtown land, either. An honest study might disclose more about the City's return on investment, however. Clips from 2012 and 2013 City budgets appear to show an operating loss.

Conference Center Operating Loss from 2012

Conference Center's Operating Loss for 2013
But according to a 2013 report, the Convention Center "has operated in the black from the beginning."

"in the black"? - Conference Center update
The extent to which the Conference Center really adds value or requires subsidy has never been made clear to the citizenry. What has been visible it a steady racheting up of ambition and airs - from "Conference Center" to "Convention Center," for example - and this sounds like another form of the ponzi scheme. If the City committed to the analysis unflinchingly, this would be an opportunity for a kind of real audit. (But of course it could be a Potemkin report also.)

The City has to pay attorneys fees in a public records squabble. Salem Reporter notes "The city recently lost a years-long legal battle to withhold arrest records of a man convicted of child abuse." And combined with the reductions to the City's website and questions about open meetings laws, altogether it's not a good look at all.

In the Legislative positions the City offers cautious support for greenhouse gas reduction and the establishment of a Carbon Policy Office. "The Legislative Committee is recommending the City of Salem support the broad framework and concepts within House Bill 2020."

Update, April 20th

The City's released the first pass at a proposed budget and it has about $9 million in reductions.
  • It proposes to end some programming that offers popular symbolism or image, but whose empirical effectiveness is very questionable: Things the the anti-drug DARE program and the City's commitment to the Sobering Center.
  • A rental support program for people without shelter has found it difficult to recruit landlord participation, and its support would be at actual levels, about half of the budgeted level.
  • About 9 FTE positions, mostly vacant or soon to be vacant through retirement or other attrition, at the City would not be filled.
As this winds its way through the process there will be more to say.

One thing, though, that neither this announcement by the City Manager, nor the ones by the Sustainable Services and Revenue Task Force have addressed is our system of subsidies, tax incentives, and other give-aways to business.

What is the revenue leakage here?

Has the City really embraced this document, "Statement No. 77 of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board: Tax Abatement Disclosures," and in our quarterly "business development" reports shared how much we give away and how effective they really are?  It's been out since August of 2015, and Council should consider asking for more attention to it.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Added bit on city budget.)

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Updated with important detail I missed: The Library item is an "information report," and structured to avoid an invitation to Council for any changes.)