Ward 3: John Hitt aiming to continue move away from timber-reliant economy

One of the reasons former city manager John Hitt says he’s running for City Council is Lebanon’s progress in moving away from timber industry dependence.
“That’s been going on for decades,” Hitt said. “In that process, you know I think, our future lies with education, with medicine, with professional services and businesses. I think to really kind of complete that turn, we need to focus on community amenities.”
He would like to see the city advance Build Lebanon Trails more rapidly than it has.
“Like so many things, you’re looking at the allocation of money resources and possible grants,” Hitt said. “Very few cities, even states, have the option of being able to spend money when and wherever they like, so it’s a matter of prioritizing. But I think that needs to be a very high priority.”
Another example of community amenities is how Lebanon looks as a community, he said.
“Way back in, I think is was 2003, there was a downtown development plan that really focused on enhancing the appearance of downtown,” Hitt said. “A little bit of that got implemented, but not very much and so I’d like to see, kind of brush the dust off that plan. It was put together by real downtown planning experts, architects, a really high-profile group that put that together.”
Hitt was city manager at the time, serving until 2013.
“We got started on it and I think probably the biggest thing that kept that from being pushed further down the road was the whole economic downturn in 2007, 2008,” Hitt said. “In retrospect, I probably would push it harder than I did at the time.”
To illustrate the importance of that development, Hitt said comments about the state of some buildings helped motivate him to run for council.
He was having dinner with some former Lebanon residents who were visiting from the Sacramento suburb where they now reside.
They ate at a restaurant on Main Street, he said.
“We were sitting there at the dinner table and I said, ‘Well, do you ever think you might like to move back?’ and they both immediately answered ‘No,’ which kind of took me aback,” Hitt recalled.
He asked why not.
They both pointed at a building across the street, he said.
“It was kind of really run down, piles of junk; this was on our main street here,” Hitt said.
He thinks the solution lies in a combination of enforcing existing codes and working with property owners in a positive way.
“There are grants, there are programs we can put together as a city,” he said. “You know, you’re not going to turn everything around in a couple of years.”
It may take five or 10 years to upgrade the appearance of those properties, he said.
The town entrances could also use some sprucing up.
“We did a nice job on our Sweet Home side, our entrance sign,” Hitt said. “(We) did a great job there, but that’s probably our least busy.”
The busiest is coming through Highway 34 directly from I-5, he said.
“That looks really bad,” Hitt said. “That’s another story, I had a guy that I was meeting in town, this was probably about a year ago, who had never been to Lebanon before.”
The visitor came from that direction and commented on the appearance, he said.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll take you around and show you a lot nicer places in town, but you’re right – that entrance to the town doesn’t really speak well for Lebanon,’” Hitt said.
Hitt thinks the city needs to build on the positive things that are already happening, such as Best Western Premier Boulder Falls Inn and its associated restaurant.
“I think it’s a matter of this is our future, with medicine, with education, with that type of professional services,” Hitt said.
To do a better job of attracting those types of businesses and those types of individuals, typically senior management, the city should have a community that’s going to have more visible appeal to them and offer more amenities, he said.
Cheadle Lake Park is another project he would like to see the city pursue more aggressively.
“There’s a Cheadle Lake development plan, I don’t know exactly when that was done,” Hitt said. “Just before I got there or just after I got there. It was either the late ’90s or early 2000s.”
The plan offered a lot of community amenities, such as kayaking, a kayak rental place, water sports, baseball, and soccer, he said.
“Those are the kinds of things that I think have started and the trails that I mentioned that I think we just need to put higher on the priority list,” Hitt said.
While he did not attend meetings for the 2040 visioning process, Hitt said he did participate in the online surveys.
He said he thinks the outcome of the visioning process is good but that “we probably need to do a little bit better job setting the priorities.”
He has met with Gary Marks, the current city manager.
“I like Gary,” Hitt said. “I think he’s a good city manager. In fact, I would say, all the senior staff, I think I know almost all of them, I think are all excellent.
There may be some concerns, I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth, there may be some concerns about really establishing priorities.”
A city councilor would need three other councilors to agree with him, but what Hitt would “like to see happen is to clarify things for the staff as to where to put their energies and, of course, financial resources, over the course of the next couple, three years – things that, not that you ignore them or let them go, but just don’t push them as hard.”
He said he has not spoken with Marks about that issue, but the city budget is part of the City Council’s responsibility.
After Hitt retired, an audit of the budget revealed that during his time as city manager, “some employee time was disproportionately allocated to non-General Fund accounts,” according to a city press release in February 2014. An example cited was the paying of employees out of urban renewal district funds more than they worked there. This, combined with fewer fees and forfeitures than projected, led to a General Fund deficit of about $400,000. As a result, the equivalent of 10 full-time employees was laid off.
The city received another financial blow in May of 2013 when it was discovered that the city owed $10 million to Lowe’s Company Inc. as part of a 2005 economic development agreement.
Hitt said in September of 2012, before he retired, that there was about $2.5 million required to purchase the wetlands area but that the money was set aside in a reserve urban renewal district, according to newspaper reports. The city used a bond to pay Lowe’s rather than the URD funds that were anticipated. Other capital improvements planned with the bond were put on hold, according to reports.
When asked about those financial issues, Hitt said from the beginning, the Lowe’s payment was focused on issuing a bond.
“A lot of this happened while I was out of the country, but I believe they did issue a bond and that bond was always the plan from the very beginning,” Hitt said.
Asked about money coming out of the URD funds, Hitt said he was not aware of anyone laid off as a result of that.
“I just heard that the decision was made to lay people off because less revenue was collected than was anticipated,” Hitt said. “That’s all I heard.”
Since he retired in 2013, Hitt has deliberately removed himself from city business, until now, he said.
He wanted to let the new city manager settle in.
He was also concerned about people’s perceptions of him being involved.
“I mean, to some extent, maybe I’m too sensitive about these things, but sometimes I think people feel, ‘Well, here’s this old retired guy, he had his time, what’s he coming back and put his foot in the water now.’ So I didn’t, but it was very deliberate, just to leave a buffer amount of time in which people could focus on where they wanted to see the city go without my kibitzing.”
The response he’s gotten since he decided to run has been positive, at least from people who know him, he said.
“I hear about people that aren’t so glad,” Hitt said. “That’s OK. That’s the great thing about a democracy, you know; people are totally free to vote however they want to vote.”

By Audrey Gomez
Lebanon Local