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Our Opinion: Road to new fee doesn't have to be bumpy

Portland’s residents and businesses fully understand the need to keep the city’s streets in good repair. What they are having trouble comprehending, however, is the method — if there is any — behind the mess being made of this issue by Mayor Charlie Hales and city Commissioner Steve Novick.

After two weeks of stops and starts on a proposed transportation utility fee, Hales and Novick have quite vividly illustrated how not to conduct a public process. They’ve veered far away from their original idea, unnecessarily raising people’s anxieties with talk of other types of revenue sources, such as a gas tax, a motor vehicle registration fee, a sales tax, a tax on business profits or a combination of all of them.

It doesn’t have to be this complicated. The mayor and commissioner should look to road-funding examples set by other cities and counties in Oregon. Public acceptance of a transportation fee is entirely possible if city officials are able to do just four things:

• Keep the fee at a reasonable level.

• Make it equitable for residents and businesses.

• Tell people precisely how the money will be spent, which projects will get highest priority and what benefits residents and businesses will gain from this investment.

• Follow through by spending the money in exactly the way promised, bringing projects in on time and under budget.

This approach has worked where it’s been tried, and voters in other jurisdictions have agreed to renew or not challenge transportation fees and levies after seeing tangible results.

For that matter, Portland’s leaders need to look no further than their own Children’s Levy to find a good illustration of how to win public allegiance for important programs. The Children’s Levy was first approved in 2002, with 53 percent of voters supporting it. The levy has twice been renewed — with 74 percent of voters saying yes in the May 2013 election.

The Children’s Levy has grown in popularity because the city has been increasingly specific in describing how the funds will be used and what outcomes are being achieved.

If anything, providing such specificity with a transportation fee should be even more straightforward than with the social programs financed by the Children’s Levy. Hales and Novick, who is the commissioner in charge of transportation, must be able to assure residents that the vast majority of the money will be expended for maintenance. They also must put systems in place to ensure accountability and make regular reports to the public about projects undertaken with these funds.

Before deciding how the money should be spent, however, they must settle on a method of raising revenue. The city of Tigard provides a good model to follow. It charges each household $5.83 a month, and businesses are required to pay $1.31 per month for each of their parking spaces, up to a maximum of 250 spaces.

Those numbers may not be an exact match for Portland’s needs, but they provide a starting point — one that’s been well accepted by residents and businesses alike in Tigard. Hales and Novick should nail down those financial details before they ask their fellow city commissioners to refer a measure to the ballot that would dictate how the money could be spent.

What shouldn’t get lost in the debate are the well-documented problems with Portland’s streets. This city has many transportation needs, but maintenance is one repeatedly identified by the city auditor’s office, which correctly notes maintenance costs will keep increasing as long as the city lacks money for paving and other upkeep.

If they want to address those concerns quickly, Hales and Novick should drop any discussion of gas taxes, sales taxes or business taxes. They should instead settle on a fee-based plan that doesn’t hit individuals or merchants too hard, but that gets the city moving on its huge backlog of deferred street maintenance.