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Keeping in touch: Notes from the Mayor

Mayor Lucy VinisThis blog aims to nurture our conversation and understanding of the issues before us. Every week, I will provide a weekly update on the activities in the city government, my activities as mayor, and brief reflections on progress, opportunities and challenges. You are invited to respond with reactions, insights and questions. We do this work together.

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Feb 12

February 12, 2021

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 5:37 PM by Niyah Ross

This was a heavy week that began with a long night. 

The headline topic was Council’s review of the status of negotiations with NW Natural regarding the renewal of the franchise agreement. Public forum has been full since November with impassioned testimony about this negotiation.

NW Natural is currently operating under the third six- month extension of the 20-year agreement approved in 1999.  The extensions have been approved in order to allow enough time to reach an agreement on two  separate but linked agreements: the franchise itself which dictates the timeline, fees and conditions associated with leasing the use of the public Right of Way to NW Natural for their pipelines; and a second Carbon Reduction Agreement (CRA) with associated fees to delineate the progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  The proceeds of that fee would be applied toward other GHG reduction measures in the City.

While there is progress on the essentials of the franchise agreement – notably a 10-year timeline, and a phased in increase in the fees to the city; the negotiations have faltered over the CRA. Foremost among those challenges is the question of linkage to the franchise agreement – the City regards the two as linked; NW Natural sees them as separate agreements in which the CRA is voluntary and can be terminated without impacting the franchise agreement.

While the City will continue to seek a resolution to the remaining issues, we cannot resolve them before the current six-month extension expires in May.  This means there will be lapse for some unforeseeable amount of time.   There was no interest in Council to seek another six-month extension.  NW Natural can continue to serve their customers as always.  They are still under a franchise agreement, and even after it lapses, will still provide gas to their customers and have access to their infrastructure for maintenance.  They will not, however, be formal partners with the City in striving to respond to climate change unless or until we find a pathway that we all agree.  

Before this controversial session. Council heard a presentation about our Urban Forestry program.  The positive news is the strength of our Urban Forestry team and the data and expertise they bring to the challenge of maintaining and restoring our tree canopy.  The hard news is that we have about 23% tree canopy and should have 30%.  We’ve been losing ground, partly due to storms and development; and partially due to certain parts of town, notably west and north, have dense clay soils that impede tree root growth.  The City is amending soils and redesigning stormwater and other features to improve tree growth. They have also succeeded in finding homes for over 3,000 giant sequoia saplings that are better adapted than Douglas firs to our warming climate.

On Wednesday, Council met jointly with the County Board of Commissioners to review progress in implementing the “TAC” report on improving our homeless services. Despite the very real evidence across Eugene of the number of people camping because they have nowhere safer or warmer to be, the City and County have made a lot progress in building a better system of services.  We are still outpaced by the continuing stark number – 138 people newly falling into homelessness every month. 

A few things to remember: the ten strategies of the TAC report include some visible investments like the construction of permanent supportive housing that has continued throughout 2020; and the investment in the River Avenue clinic that will most likely be renovated to serve as the 75 bed homeless shelter and navigation center.  Less visible to the public are streamlined services and better outreach to the unhoused that are both underway and expanding.  Finally, it is important to remember that the City’s investment in rest stops and microsites are separate programs that are related to our overall continuum of services but are not included in the TAC report.  

Councilors and Commissioners generally agreed that the ongoing work is promising and still not enough.  The goal of 350 units of housing is too small.  This is a pressing issue for all of us, and the next round of conversations will discuss actual and potential revenue sources and the status of the River Avenue Clinic conversion depending on how long it is needed for unhoused COVID patients.