Clackamas County to explore repeal of vehicle registration fee
Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith has suggested the board of commissioners repeal the county's vehicle registration fee in order to better sell voters on a 12-cent increase in the public safety levy that could be on the ballot this coming May.
"I'm asking this commission to roll back the increase in the vehicle registration fee at the same time because then I believe we can make a case to the public that we are indeed good stewards of your money and that we take our fiduciary duties seriously in providing public safety," Smith said.
Smith's suggestion to her board colleagues Tuesday, Feb. 9 came as Clackamas County Sheriff Angela Brandenburg gave an update on the public safety levy voters first approved back in 2006 and have renewed every five years since. According to Brandenburg, increases in both costs and the number of calls the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office receives year after year will force the department to cut 12 deputy positions if the status quo remains.
According to Brandenburg, the levy brings in about $13 million a year and maintains funding for approximately 18 sheriff's deputies, 10 investigators, 31 jail deputies and a total of 84 jail beds.
"This levy is critical to keeping our community safe," Brandenburg said. "Simply put, the cost of doing business is increasing each year, and this is where we find ourselves."
The levy currently collects up to 24.8 cents per $1,000 of a home's assessed value and has not been increased since it was first approved 15 years ago. Brandenburg told the board that it costs a homeowner of a house valued at $250,000 approximately $5.17 a month or about $62 per year.
Polling by the sheriff's office and consulting firm Patinkin Research Strategies in January found that two-thirds of likely voters favored a 12-cent increase to maintain current service levels while adding 27 full-time deputies and increasing mental health bed capacity by 26. The added revenue would grow the levy's total impact from $13 million annually to just over $19 million.
According to Brandenburg, the increased revenue would also fund a body camera program and allow the county to hire two more internal affairs investigators.
Brandenburg said that some of the new positions would fill gaps in services within the patrol division, elder abuse and neglect investigations, child abuse investigations, human trafficking and felony person-on-person crime.
"We find ourselves in a position where this dedicated funding is less effective, and it's no longer meeting the demands for our resources," Brandenburg said.
Smith countered Brandenburg's math, asserting that the median home price in Clackamas County is closer to around $400,000 and continues to grow at some of the highest rates of anywhere in the country.
With help from county staff, Smith did some quick back-of-the-napkin math and suggested that the average homeowner was paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $99.20 per year, and a 12-cent increase in the levy would increase the annual payment to an average of $147.
"Maybe we should be talking about a higher-priced home to bring more integrity to the process," Smith said.
Commissioner Paul Savas asked Brandenburg if CCSO has a plan for how it will fill those additional 27 deputy positions.
According to Brandenburg, CCSO has commissioned a comprehensive staffing study which will be used as a roadmap for how the office will hire in order to ensure gaps in service are best filled and resources are spent most efficiently.
"We need more patrol deputies on the road which is why you see a majority of these that will be going to the road," she said. "We have investigators with caseloads who have to decide which are the worst crimes that they're going to investigate today. So the need is there, and I'm hoping to show that when this comprehensive staffing study is done."
Brandenburg said the results of that study won't be available until early May, just a few weeks before the question of whether to increase the levy would come before voters.
The board has until Saturday, Feb. 27 to make a decision on whether to put the levy increase on the May ballot.
The vehicle registration fee was implemented by the previous board of commissioners in 2019 and charges passenger vehicles $30 per year and motorcyclists $15. It raises approximately $11 million per year for local road projects in Clackamas County, and has been a point of contention between the public and the board in recent years.
Proposals for vehicle registration fees and fuel taxes have been shot down by voters several times in Clackamas County. In 2016, voters turned down a fuel tax of 6 cents per gallon by more than 60 percent.
Commissioner Paul Savas said Smith's proposal to repeal the VRF was surprising — a point of contention between commissioners and county staff lately who have all committed to a "no surprises" approach to government at Smith's explicit request.
"I didn't realize that that was going to be introduced today. With that said, you'll have to give me some liberty to speak here today because of the nature of your proposal," Savas said.
Savas went on to say that he did not support the approach that the previous board took in 2019 when the topic of implementing the county's VRF came up, but he was in support of seeing more dollars earmarked for county road projects.
Savas pointed out that the polling done by CCSO's consultant didn't take the VRF into account when it came back with 66% favorability for an increase to the public safety levy, and that the two efforts would need to be separate.
Commissioner Martha Schrader agreed any conversation in repealing the VRF would need to require a larger discussion and work by a committee to assess the hit the county's road fund would take.
County Administrator Gary Schmidt suggested the board put the issue of the public safety levy and ballot titling on its agenda for next week's policy session and subsequent business meeting to approve it for May, as well as a policy session to look into potentially repealing the VRF.
"I am mindful that this was not something that I gave anyone notice on, but this is a topic that's been deep, deep in my heart for over a year and a half," Smith said. "I'll remind this commission that it was in 2016 that we had an advisory vote … that the citizens said 'No' to the VRF. I know there's problems, I understand. I anticipated all the suggestions that were offered here today, and nothing has caught me by surprise, but we will have this discussion regarding the VRF going forward. We will also have a discussion about the sheriff's levy."
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