Volunteer group unanimously recommends Tigard seek levy option
Sixteen Tigard residents, volunteers on a city task force formed to explore the idea of asking for voter approval of a local option levy next year, were unanimous Thursday evening, Nov. 16, in saying the city should do so.
The members of the Levy & Bond Advisory Task Force all said that not only should the Tigard City Council refer an operating levy to voters — a five-year increase in the property tax rate, which would bolster Tigard's general fund revenues — it should tailor the levy to allow the city not only to maintain its current service levels, but improve upon them.
Tigard City Manager Marty Wine and other officials have been warning for years that while Tigard is experiencing year-after-year increases in its revenues, money collected through taxes and fees, its expenditures are actually growing at a faster rate — and that trend shows no sign of reversing. The City Council commissioned the task force to make recommendations about a possible levy, which Wine said this week she hopes could forestall the need for budget cuts as early as next year.
"It seems very obvious that without it, we're going to see a decline in services," said Wayne Gross, a member of the task force, at Thursday evening's meeting.
Cuts to services, Gross argued, "would send a really bad message to the community."
Just last year, to great fanfare, Tigard reopened its public library on Thursdays for the first time in years. The reopening came in response to popular demand and was viewed as a symbol of economic recovery in a middle-class Portland suburb emerging from the Great Recession.
Tigard has also added staff over the past two years, including police officers last year last year and development employees this year this year. City officials said at the time that the additions were needed to maintain the city's existing service levels, as demand has increased.
With major residential development ongoing in the River Terrace neighborhood on Tigard's western frontier, the city is growing quickly. Population projections released last year suggested it can expect to welcome some 20,000 new residents — nearly half again its current population — by 2040.
Several task force members said they believe the City Council should think big in crafting a levy option for the ballot next year precisely because they don't want Tigard to be in the position of returning to voters in 2023 and asking for even more.
Mitch Friedman said, "I think that we should look at a more sustainable solution to this in a more long-term environment than the short term."
Gross agreed, saying, "I think you've got to do enough to be able to show an impact."
Others said they are concerned about increasing Tigard's property taxes too much, potentially "pricing out" low-income individuals and families from living in the city.
Eric Zimmerman, Tigard's assistant city manager, said officials believe that a levy of $1 per $1,000 of assessed value — amounting to an extra $252 on the average homeowner's property tax bill, according to the city's numbers — would be what is required simply to avoid service cuts in 2018 and beyond. For a levy that would allow the city to improve on its existing services, he offered a ballpark number of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.
"I shop at WinCo and got into a random conversation with somebody there that I didn't even know," said task force member Erin Scheller. "And I asked them what they like about the city and what keeps them living here and things like that. And just thinking about what a stretch just the smallest amount — you know, people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and can't handle gas price increases or things that are small like that — coming in and asking them for more money, it could be a stretch."
The task force was generally aligned on what priorities to set in spending tax revenue raised by the levy. Thirteen of the 16 said they want to see that money go toward new sidewalks, 11 said they want park maintenance and improvements to be funded, and 10 said they think new revenue should go toward expanding the Tigard Police Department's patrol services.
Members also identified transparency and accountability in spending the revenue as something the city should prioritize. Others said the city needs to seek to understand its voters' motives and encourage them to vote for the levy by appealing to their preferences. Scheller suggested levy campaigners could use three different signs, stating "Vote for Parks," "Vote for Police" and "Vote for Sidewalks," to remind voters of all of the popular city services that the measure would fund.
According to city officials like Wine, Zimmerman and Finance Director Toby LaFrance, who was also at Thursday's meeting, Tigard's money worries can largely be traced back to the passage of Ballot Measure 50 two decades ago.
Measure 50 effectively capped the rate that local governments and special districts in Oregon can charge taxpayers at the level each had set as of 1997. For cities like Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Oregon City, that rate was comfortably high — Lake Oswego currently has a property tax rate that is actually below the permanent "authority" fixed by Measure 50. For cities like Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville, that rate was very low relative to those other suburbs.
While Tualatin has been able to compensate somewhat for its lowest-in-Washington County property tax rate, owing to a disproportionately large industrial area and a commercial core on both sides of Interstate 5 that have both seen substantial redevelopment and investment in recent years, and Wilsonville has cut costs by contracting with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office for municipal police services, among other measures, Tigard has less recourse. The city's industrial area is much smaller than Tualatin's, and its population is more than twice that of Wilsonville's and growing quickly.
Zimmerman characterized Tigard's difficulties as "structural" in nature, while Wine said Tuesday that she believes the city has essentially exhausted its options for raising revenue without needing voter approval of a local option levy. In other words, officials see a binary choice for Tigard between raising property taxes with a levy or cutting services that some task force members suggested they already see as somewhat below par for a city of Tigard's size.
Task force member Robert Van Vlack said referring the levy option to voters is the ideal way to decide Tigard's future: by placing it in its residents' hands.
"If they want a city that is vibrant and well-maintained, then I think they will vote for it," Van Vlack said. "If not, we'll see what happens."