Small city lobbying event forecasts big changes at Oregon Capitol.

OUTLOOK PHOTO - From Left: Troutdale City Councilor Glenn White, Mayor Casey Ryan and Councilors Rich Allen and Randy Lauer take a break from the League of Cities' City Day event on steps in the Oregon Capitol Building on Wednesday, Feb. 8, in Salem.

SALEM—Cities are strongest when they speak with one voice. That, at least, is the idea behind City Day at the Oregon Capitol, an annual lobbying event hosted by the League of Oregon Cities.

While Gresham skipped the affair, Troutdale and Fairview are enthusiastic boosters of the small-town coalition, which gathered 182 officials representing 77 cities on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

Here are four takeaways from the get-together.

No purrs for PERS

The cost of PERS — the Public Employees Retirement System — will soon triple, forcing all cities to direct 30 cents of every tax dollar toward the pension and health care behemoth.

Senate Republican Caucus chief Ted Ferrioli told city leaders that the highest paid member of the PERS system, a former Oregon Health & Science University neurosurgeon named Dr. Johnny Delashaw, collects more than $50,000 a month, while the average payment is closer to $37,000 a year.

"The optics are terrible, and it isn't fair," Ferrioli charged. "Probably the most important thing we will accomplish, if we do, is to bend the cost curve on PERS down, because we have to."

But slashing new costs won't be enough, said House Speaker Tina Kotek.

"If we eliminated our entire PERS system tomorrow, we would still have a $22 billion unfunded liability that we would have to pay," she reminded.

Transportation talks

As the Legislature jockeys over a statewide transportation package, small-city lobbyists will seek more funds for highways and road maintenance, but not bike lanes and light rail.

In particular, the League of Oregon Cities would like to see more tolls or a new gas tax, with indexing to ensure the fee keeps up with inflation.

There's a pre-existing 50-30-20 split on transportation money — which steers half the cash to the Oregon Department of Transportation, with the rest split between counties and cities, respectively.

That means ODOT will have funds for a proposed Interstate 205 project, regardless of what package comes to pass.

"We could take every dollar from a statewide transportation package just to go to Portland, and I don't think that's fair," said Kotek, who commutes to the Capitol from North Portland.

An improper property tax

Measure 5 capped property taxes for education funding, shifting the burden from the state to local jurisdictions. Measure 50 further limited property taxes by changing how assessed property value is calculated.

It's no secret that some budget-makers would like to see these citizen-passed initiatives disappear, which they say compound spending woes. The League would also like to see more reform to property taxes, saying that the current formula is applied unfairly. But don't get your hopes up.

"I'll be super honest. I don't think there's the momentum to deal with that in this session," admitted Speaker Kotek of the proposal.

"I don't see what's wrong with 3 percent a year increases," said Troutdale City Councilor Glenn White, who was in Salem on City Day. "People's income doesn't grow much beyond that, and income has been pretty flat. I think they need a Plan B."

State growing pains

The state has hired an average of 16.5 public employees each day, every day, for the past three years, according to Ferrioli. That's almost 17,000 employees total.

And while a much-discussed $1.8 billion shortfall continues to confound legislators, Ferrioli said the state actually surpassed revenue expectations by $1.3 billion during the last fiscal cycle. But that surplus money disappeared into a spending hole.

"I call it the burn rate," Ferrioli said. "And just like grandpa used to say, 'If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.'"

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