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Vehicle fees may be a way to fund road work

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Day Road in north Wilsonville is in a part of the city that falls in Washington County and could potentially benefit from a proposed county vehicle registration fee headed to voters in November. Washington County’s recent move to refer a proposed $30 vehicle registration fee to voters in November has sparked discussion among municipal officials whose cities could benefit from the potential revenue.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners approved the move following a June 17 public hearing, saying it is intended to address an estimated $10.5 million shortfall in county road maintenance needs. Clackamas County is in a similar position, with an even larger maintenance shortfall county officials estimate at more than $15 million.

The Wilsonville City Council now is looking with interest at these proceedings. As one of the few cities in Oregon that crosses county lines, Wilsonville would stand to collect roughly $40,000 a year in registration fees if Washington County voters approve the new fee. But with the bulk of its 21,000 residents residing in Clackamas County, a similar fee in that county would likely mean a much larger check in city coffers.

“It’s just one more tool that Washington County is trying to use,” Wilsonville Community Development Director Nancy Kraushaar told city councilors at a June 16 council work session. “We’ve talked a lot about the lack of sufficient transportation funding in Oregon, and a lot of cities have adopted utility fees for pavement maintenance, which Wilsonville has. And the county has never done that.”

Kraushaar said it’s easier for cities, including Wilsonville, to administer a streets fee via utility mechanisms. Counties typically don’t, she added. Currently, Wilsonville charges residential water and sewer customers $4.03 a month for street maintenance, which is simply tucked into the larger bill. In the city’s 2014-15 budget, it expects to collect $680,000 in road usage fees.

“There’s a number of reasons why a vehicle registration fee makes more sense,” Kraushaar said. “They don’t send out a utility bill so it’s hard for them to collect it, and I think that administratively they find this (registration fee) works well for them.”

Clackamas County Commissioner Martha Schrader also happened to be on hand for the council’s June 16 meeting. She said the county would need to spend at least $15 million annually to get caught up with ongoing maintenance needs for the county’s 1,400 miles of paved roads.

“It’s not just asphalt and pavement,” Schrader said, “but emergency response incidents, flood incidents on the mountain, major snow incidents, all those dollars come out of our highway fund and that takes away the dollars we could be using for maintenance and other issues.”

Schrader also noted that counties — unlike cities — are prevented by a quirk of state law from spending property tax revenue on streets and roads. This, she added, has proved to be a major hindrance and has, in part, led to renewed talk among regional government officials about a potential vehicle registration fee in Clackamas County.

“We’ve talked about a joint venture with cities and counties that likely would be a vehicle registration fee,” Schrader said. “There’s nothing for November, but the state of county roads, which, by and large, are fair to bad, I don’t know, unless you’re out in the hinterland where people think it’s smooth sailing ...”

Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp noted the city’s street maintenance fee has been successful to date, and it even was reduced once the city’s backlog of street work was trimmed.

“Our maintenance fee has been very successful,” Knapp said. “And we even were able to reduce the fee to people and have maintained our roads quite well since then; we’re probably at a point to reevaluate whether the fee is current or not.”

He added that it makes no sense to let publicly funded roads deteriorate to the point where they need to be reconstructed.

“It’s far, far more expensive than doing periodic maintenance,” he said. “Clackamas County says they maintain 1,400 miles of roads, and it’s going to be a discussion that we’re going to be involved in. The county is going to be looking for support from their cities to try and find an avenue. It is additional dollars people would pay for vehicle registration, but I think that Oregon, on a state-by-state basis, is pretty moderate in this so they’re seeing this as a reasonable way of approaching the problem.”

Councilor Richard Goddard said Washington County has an added advantage in that an earlier road maintenance programs, including the county’s urban road maintenance district, have lived up to their promises.

“They have established credibility with that program,” Goddard said. “They told people up front what they were going to do with the money, and when they did they built the projects they said they were going to build. That credibility has gone a long way with Washington County and it’s something Clackamas County doesn’t have yet.”

The latter, Goddard added, needs to follow the same template.

“If Clackamas County is going to go down the road of using this to generate road fees,” he said, “it’s important they tell people up front what they’re going to do with the money and that they have a way of quantifying afterward the benefits for the people paying the fees.”

Knapp agreed.

“The people I heard who are talking most responsibly about this say we need projects spread around, in order, and we need to set out a timetable,” Knapp said. “And then people are going to have to see that it happens if you expect it to work in the long run.”



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