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  • 21 Oct 2014

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City street fee tries to avoid political traffic

Opponents skeptical of maintenance plan as council readies vote


Mayor Charlie Hales will ask the City Council next Thursday to approve a new street fee for all residents, businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations. Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick want the council to approve the fee without sending it to the voters for approval.

“We’ve been talking about this problem for 14 years,” Hales said at a May 22 press conference where he and Novick unveiled the proposal. “This is one of those times we need to step up and do a difficult thing.”

It is not clear a majority of the council will go along with that idea, however. And several business organizations are still deciding whether to refer it the ballot if the council acts on its own.

Shawn Miller, a lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association, says the organization opposes the calculations used by the city to determine how much businesses would pay. “Unless the city changes that, we will oppose it,” Miller says.

The council could vote on the fee — officially called a transportation user fee — as soon as June 4. It would take effect in July 2015 and be used for maintenance, safety improvements and other transportation needs.

The proposed fee would raise an estimated $40 million a year. A majority of the council has not yet said they will approve the fee without a vote of the public, however. Hales and Novick have already said they will vote for the fee without referring it the ballot. They have developed it together and presented

the proposal to residents, business owners and other governments within the city limits at numerous forums during the past few months.

When asked who else on the council supports the fee, Hales said he expects Commissioner Amanda Fritz to support it. A short time later, Fritz said she was surprised by the comment and has not yet made up her mind. “I agree the city has transportation needs and I’m hopeful we can come up with a package that meets them, but I am not going to make a decision before the public hearing,” Fritz said.

Fritz thinks the proposed fee for single-family households — $11.56 a month or $138.72 a year — is too high. She declined to offer an amount she could support.

Fritz, who is in charge of Portland Parks & Recreation, is also thinking about asking voters to approve a parks levy to replace the one that expires this year.

Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have previously said they believe the fee should be referred to the voters. It is unclear whether they have changed their minds since winning re-election at last week’s primary election, however.

A dedicated fee

The council approved such a fee in 2007. It was proposed by Sam Adams, who was transportation commissioner at the time. Adams had the council repeal the fee after a lobbyist for the Oregon Petroleum Dealers Association said the organization would refer it to the ballot.

The association had not taken a stand on the new proposal by the end of last week. Neither had other business organizations that could support a referral drive, including the Portland Business Alliance and the Neighborhood Stores Association. All were still studying the details of the proposal, which were not released until the press conference.

Hales and Novick have ruled out asking voters to approve the fee, saying it is time for the council to show leadership after many years of knowing the city is not adequately maintaining its roads. At the press conference, Hales said 28 other Oregon cities have adopted similar fees without referring them to voters. He called it the least worst of the bad options facing the council for funding needed transportation projects.

“If the voters are really mad at us, we’re both up for re-election in 2016, and they can throw us out,” Novick told reporters.

Fritz has already said she does not intend to run for re-election in two years, when her term expires.

But Hales and Novick also want to refer a charter amendment to the voters this November that would dedicate the fee to transportation projects. Although not the same as asking voters to approve the fee, it would ensure that future councils cannot divert the funds for other purposes.

The proposal to be considered by the council on May 29 would provide discounts for low-income households and households in multifamily buildings, such as apartments.

Businesses and governments would pay monthly fees based on the estimated amount of motor vehicle trips they generate. An online calculator is available at OurStreetsPDX.com to help them estimate their fees.

Hales admits that imposing the fee on other government and nonprofit organization many sound unusual. Governments and nonprofit organization, including churches, are exempt from city and county property taxes. But Hales noted the fee is not a property tax. He says it would be payment for a utility service, like a water bill.

“Churches have to pay their water bills,” Hales told reporters last week.