Think Out Loud

A city-owned garage in Portland is in desperate need of repair

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
April 15, 2024 6:55 p.m. Updated: April 15, 2024 8:10 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, April 15

When one of the city’s vehicles are in need of repair, they may find themselves at Kerby Garage, a two-story city-owned facility in North Portland. But while the facility is responsible for servicing more than 2,000 city vehicles such as snowplows, dump trucks and excavators, the building has been labeled in city reports as in “very poor condition.” Some of the many problems with the building include no automated smoke detectors, frequent garage door issues and no air conditioning. Willamette Week reporter Sophie Peel has been covering this issue. She joins us to share more on what workers are facing and potential plans to address conditions at the facility in the future.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. When one of the City of Portland’s snowplows, dump trucks, or excavators needs to be repaired, it ends up at the Kerby Garage – a two story, city owned facility in North Portland. But while the facility is responsible for servicing more than 2,000 vehicles, the building itself, according to the city’s own reports, is in very poor condition. As Willamette Week reporter Sophie Peel recently wrote though, it’s not clear that there is either the money or the political will to finally address this situation. Sophie Peel joins us now. Welcome back.

Sophie Peel: Thanks for having me.

Miller: You spent a couple of days at the Kerby Garage at this point, in different reporting times. What is it like inside?

Peel: Yeah, it’s like a giant warehouse, but instead of boxes and packing materials, you’ve got these unbelievably large vehicles and machines that are crammed into a really small space. So they’re really crowding each other in. You’ve got dump trucks and excavators and sewer suckers – which I didn’t know was a thing until I went to the Kerby – asphalt rakers, and then there’s all this crazy equipment that’s hanging from the ceiling and the walls. There are just machines…there’s one that looks like a giant sewing machine that they use to dismantle tires. It’s really unlike any place I’ve been before.

Mechanics get there around 6:00 a.m. for the morning shift, and by 7:00 a.m. there’s music playing inside the garage from a radio, there’s vehicles rolling in and out. There’s noisy machines and you’ve got mechanics milling around. It’s a really one-of-a-kind place.

Miller: What did you learn about safety or working conditions?

Peel: This facility became the city of Portland’s primary fleet maintenance garage in 1971, and it has never been appropriate for this use, even 50 years ago, but its inappropriateness has only increased over the years and decades since 1971. The floors are unevenly sloped, meaning mechanics can’t jack their vehicles up to work on the underbelly. They instead have to crawl underneath the vehicles on their backs. There’s no air conditioning. There’s no modern fire suppression system even though the mechanics are working with pressurized machines and machines filled with fuel, too.

The tire bay is well across the main repair base, so mechanics have to roll these 100-pound tires across the floor to dismount them. And structural engineers, twice in the past year, have actually weight-restricted the upper repair bay. So there’s this lower repair bay, which is the primary one, and then this upper repair bay, which is up a ramp. But twice in the past year, structural engineers have come to the Kerby and said, “Hey, you cannot work on vehicles on this top repair bay that are more than 10,000 pounds.” So that’s really crowded most of the big vehicles into the lower repair bay. On the upper repair bay, they can really only fix Portland Street Response vans, police vehicles, and motorcycles.

Miller: You first reported on this garage two years ago when the city said the conditions were unsafe. Has anything improved since then?

Peel: You know, the short answer is no. The Kerby has made some kind of small ad-hoc repairs over the years, but it’s never received any sizable chunk of funding to do any meaningful repairs, like replacing the failing roof or expanding the footprint of the garage. So there’s been small tweaks here and there, but there’s not been the funding available to make meaningful repairs.

Miller: Maty Sauter, a manager for the city’s Asset Management Division, told you that there is a caste system among city workers. What did she mean?

Peel: Maty and I had talked at length about this, over a number of different conversations, and I think what she meant is that there are certain bureaus that get the short end of the stick, and the Kerby is one of those sections of city employees that have routinely gotten the short end of the stick. And her theory is that, because the Kerby is invisible to the public, it’s an internally facing service. It serves the city bureaus and not necessarily the public itself. So because it’s invisible, it doesn’t get political support.

If the city wanted to do really meaningful repairs at the Kerby, it’s their customer bureaus: The Portland Bureau of Transportation, Bureau of Environmental Services, the Water Bureau, that would have to eat the costs, and they’ve never wanted to do that. City Council hasn’t invested in the Kerby because it’s not politically popular, and Mayor Ted Wheeler said as much during a February work session on the Kerby. He was really transparent about that, saying “No city council member in recent history, or ever, has fought for the Kerby because it’s not politically popular with voters, because they don’t really know it exists.”

Miller: And money could go to a new park, or fixing up a park, as opposed to fixing up something that may mow the grass in the park.

Peel: Right. It’s almost one degree too removed from the public eye to really matter.

Miller: What happened at the Kerby Garage during the pandemic?

Peel:  During the pandemic, as many people know, a lot of city employees who could, went home to work. There were certain city employees like police and firefighters and park rangers that had to show up in person. The Kerby mechanics were in a slightly different situation. They couldn’t work from home nor lessen their hours because at the time, the Kerby billed for hourly labor. They’re a “recovery cost” division. They don’t make profits, they just recover costs, but they do so by billing their customer bureaus by the hour. So that meant if they didn’t labor as many hours as they normally would, they wouldn’t be able to recover costs.

And when the Kerby asked their customer bureau, again, the Bureau of Transportation, Water Bureau, a lot of public service bureaus… when the Kerby asked if they could change their rate model during the pandemic to just be a flat rate per vehicle, instead of charging for hourly labor, the bureau said, “No.” So the Kerby mechanics really had no option but to show up every day in a very small cramped space.


Miller: When did the city first start documenting serious problems, safety problems or others, at the Kerby?

Peel: The first report city staff can find dates back to 1976. That’s about five years after the Kerby became the city’s primary repair garage, and at that time, the report put it pretty simply. They said that the Kerby was unfit for what it was being used for. It sits on a really steep hill, so it makes maneuvering vehicles in and out really difficult and a little precarious. The report said the footprint was far too small and that was 50 years ago, and the fleet has grown by hundreds of vehicles since then. So already the building was unfit for its use. I mean, even when it became the city’s main repair garage, city officials already knew that it was unfit, but they did it anyway.

Miller: Why has it never taken action?

Peel: I think there’s a couple different ways you can look at this. I think that the hard part is that if the city could fund everything, it would. If it could fund new parks and fill all the potholes, and also increase its police force and build thousands of units of new affordable housing, it would. But the city does have to prioritize its resources because their money is finite.

I think the Kerby has consistently been shoved aside for more pressing, flashy concerns, or not necessarily flashy but concerns of the time. I think the city council has had the difficult charge of balancing immediate and emerging crises – homelessness, fentanyl, Covid-19 – with really expensive infrastructure projects like a relocation of the Kerby. And these aren’t easy decisions, but I do think there’s this feeling amongst Kerby mechanics that the city council has, for decades now, kind of shoved them aside for more politically popular ventures.

Miller: Although you do note, and it’s worth mentioning here, that city leaders did make the decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for the Portland building, the garish modern building where many city white collar workers work. And that’s not something that most Portlanders really care about, I think, where city employees are working. But that is a choice that city leaders made. Is the Kerby a priority right now for anybody who wields meaningful, significant power in the city?

Peel: My temperature check, and I don’t want to speak for the city council, but in my conversations with them, I think they all conceptually know that the Kerby is in poor condition. They actually have all toured the building within the past year, which was new for City Council. So I think they all conceptually know that it’s in bad shape and they conceptually support it. But I think when push comes to shove, I’m not sure how they’ll come down on this.

I think it’s easy to say you support something and then… They haven’t made promises about whether or not they’re going to fund a relocation. But again, it’s easy to say you support something, because there’s no one that would argue the Kerby isn’t important. But I am a little dubious that they will actually, meaningfully invest in the Kerby anytime soon.

Miller: I’m going to talk about some of the potential options going forward. But just briefly, over the last year or two, when we’ve talked about intractable political problems in the city, we’ve often heard folks say that the coming change in the charter, the end of the commissioner form of government, the arrival of a stronger mayor, that could change the equation for various issues. That seems less true here, right?

Peel: I think there’s really an argument to be made for both scenarios. One thing Maty Sauter often pointed out to me was that the city has really had no concrete infrastructure funding plan for decades. Infrastructure always falls to the wayside because of our commission form of government. If the bureaus don’t wanna chalk up the funding for a new facility, and obviously the city commissioners oversee the bureaus, it’s not going to get that support. And she’s been adamant that once the city is run by a professional city administrator, that infrastructure will be taken more seriously because the city administrator won’t be a politician. They won’t be swung by the politics of the day.

But then there’s the other scenario where, because the city council will still be voting on the city’s budget once the new form of government kicks in, and because the Kerby isn’t politically popular, they won’t vote to fund it. So I think I’m a little less starry-eyed about the new form of government fixing the Kerby’s woes.

Miller: So let’s turn to the potential fixes or other changes. First of all, what would it cost to repair the current building?

Peel: The current estimate for renovating the Kerby, and this would just be very basic repairs like repairing the failing roof, is about $43 million. But because fixing the roof would trigger all these seismic upgrades, and a bajillion different code enforcement things, the city actually hasn’t even bothered to calculate the entire cost of renovating the Kerby because they know it would be an untenable number. So they’ve actually not calculated that amount, but that’s really not one of the options on the table.

The bigger problem with renovating the existing Kerby is that they can’t do anything about the footprint, they cannot expand the footprint. And that’s one of the critical issues of the existing garage, is that it’s just not big enough to support the city’s fleet.

Miller: So what options are on the table?

Peel: There are two real options here. One is to lease out a warehouse on Swan Island for $1.1 million per year. To do so, though, the city would have to immediately cough up $53 million in bonds for upfront infrastructure repairs to that facility. That would have to happen this summer. And again, we would go out for bonds on these, and the customer bureaus that the Kerby serves would pay those bonds down over a 20-year period. But it is, again, a pretty steep upfront cost. And then the ongoing lease would be $1.1 million for 23 years and then to 10-year renewal options. The other option that the city council has is to do nothing. It’s not to renovate, it’s not to relocate, it’s just to leave the Kerby as is.

Miller: You address this a little bit, but just to ask you point blank, I mean, if history is any guide, is there any reason to believe that city leaders are actually going to act this time around?

Peel: I’m cautiously optimistic that there is enough noise around the Kerby at this point, because Maty has been a total bulldog in advocating for it. I’d like to think the article we wrote helps move the needle a tiny bit, though I don’t wanna overestimate that. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I also understand that the city is facing a really tight budget year as is. We’re facing cuts across the board and we’ve also got some really big issues that our city is facing. So I really can’t say what’s gonna happen and I’m cautiously optimistic, but I would emphasize the “cautiously,” on that part.

Miller: Sophie, thanks very much.

Peel: Yeah, thanks.

Miller: Sophie Peel is a reporter for Willamette Week. You can read her cover article about the Kerby Garage in this week’s issue of Willamette Week.

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