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Commissioners vote 3-2 against asking voters in November whether to repeal fee

The Clackamas Board of County Commissioners has passed for now on repealing the county's vehicle-registration fee (VRF).

In a straw poll, the board voted 3-2 against letting voters decide whether to keep the fee, which adds $30/year to registration costs for most passenger vehicles and $15/year for motorcycles. The fee provides the county approximately $5.5 million annually in funding for road and transportation infrastructure projects. The county also receives approximately $33 million from the state's road fund, which includes gas-tax dollars.

The fee established in 2017 by previous county commissioners was offered up for repeal by new County Chair Tootie Smith. Although she was only able to receive the support from Commissioner Mark Shull on the issue, Smith said she wanted to repeal the fee due the economic hardships being felt by residents following the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires and recent ice storm. FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County

"Frankly, people have had it, Smith said. "And any commissioner who is not paying attention to their constituents, and are not hearing that, I submit to you, commissioners, you're not doing your jobs."

Before voting, the board heard a presentation from Dan Johnson, director of county transportation and development, and Mike Bezner, assistant director of transportation, on how the county's VRF and state dollars both help provide funding for projects that maintain more than 1,400 miles of road in Clackamas County.

They also pointed out how as cars become more sustainable and use less gas, the funds coming into the county from gas taxes have remained stagnant and no longer cover the cost of doing business to keep the county's transportation infrastructure up to date.

"As these new technologies come around, some of those historical things that we relied on, for example gas tax, are going to start depleting, and it's like, how do we recover and be strategic about our thoughts and moving forward with the state?" Johnson said.

To that end, the county's VRF provides a small bit of stability for the county's road efforts.

Commissioner Martha Schrader said she opposed repealing the VRF at this time because of the support for the county's new road projects. For that reason, she voted in the fee, despite voters turning it down in 2016.

"When we decided to move forward with the VRF, it was a hard decision," Schrader said. "

Any investment in infrastructure on our part is well worthy of support, and sometimes as leaders we've got to make those kinds of tough decisions. I voted yes because I've been here for so long and we've tried so many times to get something moved forward. Finally we were at the point where we bit the bullet.

Commissioner Paul Savas said that while he didn't agree with the mechanism by which the previous board approved the VRF, he does think it is important that the county has its own dedicated road fund with which it can prioritize projects.

Smith said the board's referral of an increase in the sheriff's levy during the previous week could be another burden on taxpayers. She also said that she did not agree with the previous board passing the VRF after voters turned it down.

"The reason why we had this presentation today is because it's my intent to, either by vote of this board, reverse the vehicle-registration fee, or put it out to a vote for referral," Smith said.

Smith asked her board colleagues to indicate in a straw poll how they'd feel about voting to repeal the VRF outright, to which none indicated they wished to do at this time.

Smith then asked the board whether they'd consider referring the question of repealing the VRF to voters on the November 2021 ballot, which resulted in the 3-2 vote.

Smith said she would like to revisit the issue at a later date and with more information from public outreach to see what the community has to say on the topic.

County Administrator Gary Schmidt told the board he would set up a full policy session for the board to learn more about funding for the county's transportation efforts and strategize with staff on how to complete public outreach suggested by the board.

Update: This version of the story online corrects the year that the VRF was established: 2017, not 2019. We apologize for the error.

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