The Portland City Council heard hours of testimony in September from residents opposed to the sale of two-thirds of Congress Square Park to a developer for $524,000. Despite the vocal opposition, and the 56 percent of Portland residents who thought it was a poor deal, the council approved the sale anyway in a 6-3 vote. Now it’s residents’ turn to vote, and for many voters the ballot will be seen as a chance to cast out councilors who jump at any ill-conceived economic development scheme, regardless of public opposition.
There’s much more at stake in choosing three new councilors, though, than the loss of a small public space. The council has lots of power in shaping the economic priorities of the city and it crafts policies that produce winners and losers. As you ponder how to vote, consider a few of the most critical economic matters the council must confront in the years ahead:
Affordable housing There’s been a boom in both “affordable” and market-rate housing developments in recent years, but many neighborhoods in Portland are still becoming places where people of modest means simply can’t afford to live. There’s much more that could be done on a local level to remedy the situation. Candidate Wells Lyons, for instance, is calling for an end to the requirement that each new housing unit come with one parking spot — a rule that increases the per-unit cost of housing at a time when fewer residents are using cars. He also suggests the city encourage higher population density by allowing taller buildings and pursuing new residential developments on underused spaces.
Economic development and jobs Every candidate wants to spur economic growth and attract new industries, so the real question is what kind of growth and industries to target and how to support them. Handing out big tax breaks and other special deals to developers is what some consider economic development, but with some creativity the city can craft policies that enable Portland’s countless entrepreneurs, creative visionaries, and skilled tradespeople to drive economic growth. The council can do this by making it as easy as possible for these people to launch new enterprises, no matter how small. Recent efforts to streamline food-truck regulations is a small example of how that happens. Councilors can also help local industries carve out new markets and expand their reach. The brand-new container-ship service linking Maine with Europe could be one such opportunity. Christopher Shorr, a sternman on a lobster boat who is running for the council, has some creative ideas for bolstering the local fishing industry. He’s calling for an initiative that would boost lobster prices by providing tax incentives to processors, new municipal partnerships, and brand marketing.
TIFs Some candidates are calling for a thorough overhaul of the city’s approach to tax-increment financing, one of the most potent economic-development tools at the disposal of local governments. TIFs basically dedicate the tax revenues of a particular business or neighborhood toward an economic development project in the community. But too often they simply are a means of delivering unnecessary tax breaks to cash-flooded companies that shouldn’t need financial help from a cash-strapped government. That’s what happened when Portland created a TIF that directed $2.9 million in taxpayer dollars to help Pierce Atwood develop upscale waterfront offices and leave its Monument Square office tower empty. TIFs can be used effectively, but for now it might be worth considering Lyons’s call to implement a moratorium on them until the city can develop a consistent and fairer approach.
: The Editorial Page
, Election 2013, Election 2013