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Street fee prompts howls of protest

Mayor Charlie Hales and Steve Novick have done a lot of work on their proposed street fee since it was first introduced on May 22.

Among other things, they have come up with discounts for low-income households, finalized a $53 million a year fundraising goal, agreed to spend 97 percent of the money on maintenance and safety projects, developed detailed maps about where the work would be done, and said they are open to ideas for collecting the funds from non-residential properties.

None of that seemed to make much of a difference Tuesday morning when dozens of angry Portlanders lambasted the proposal during a town hall on the non-residential fee at the Oregon Convention Center. Signs calling for Novick’s recall and the words “street fee” with a red slash through them circulated in the room. Asked for a show of hands, around 80 percent of those at the 8 a.m. forum signaled they had come to oppose the fee. With Hales and Novick sitting in the front of the room, many of those who testified questioned whether Portland even needs more money for streets, arguing that the city already collects plenty of taxes that could be spent for maintenance and safety projects, including urban renewal funds administered by the Portland Development Commission.

“If you raise taxes on small businesses, they have no choice but to raise their prices and pass it on to their customers,” said Richard Kiely, president of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association.

At several times, the forum threatened to spin out of control. When Hales attempted to respond to one speaker, the audience shouted him down. Eryne Kehe of JLA Public Involvement, who was hired to moderate the forum, repeatedly struggled to keep it from devolving into a shouting match.

Many of those who testified also questioned the original method proposed by Hales and Novick for collecting funds from non-residential properties — a motor vehicle trip generation formula based on a lengthy manual compiled by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Speaker after speaker told Hales and Novick that the fee unfairly penalized small businesses, who would be forced to pay thousands of dollars a year under the formula. When asked to offer alternatives, few of those who spoke agreed on another idea.

“I didn’t hear a consensus in the room for an alternative proposal that would raise as much money,” Novick said near the end of the meeting, provoking groans from some of those in attendance.

Hales and Novick were also scheduled to appear at a public forum on the residential fee on Wednesday evening. Their commitment to the fee will be tested the next day. That’s when the City Council is scheduled to consider a Nov. 4 general election ballot measure proposed by Hales to restrict the funds raised by the fee to transportation projects. Its passage would suggest a that majority of the council is willing to consider a final version of the fee, which Hales and Novick want considered on Nov. 12.

Pressed at Tuesday’s town hall, Hales repeated his assertion that the council does not need to place the fee itself on the ballot. He said the council is elected to make tough choices, not outsource them to the voters. That claim did not sit well with many in the room, however. Roger Jones, president of the Hawthorne Business Association, and past president of the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations (now known as Venture Portland), predicted a petition drive would refer the fee to the ballot if the council does not do so.

“It will either be referred to ballot by the council or the voters,” said Jones.

Three working groups are being appointed to consider different aspect so the fee, including low income discounts, alternative non-residential fees, and whether nonprofit organizations should be exempt. Hales said all three will hold monthly public meetings while the proposal is finalized.