ENDORSEMENT: Hold your nose to support Forest Grove levy
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Forest Grove does not take lightly the decision to ask voters to pay more in taxes.
City councilors in Forest Grove spent more than a year considering whether to refer a bond measure to the ballot to pay for a new police station — as recently as 2020. After conducting survey work and debating the issue, they agreed that even though Forest Grove's current police facility is undersized and outdated, it wasn't the time to ask for the money to replace it.
But Forest Grove is now facing the expiration of its local option levy, which pays for much of the day-to-day operations of Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and the Forest Grove Police Department, as well as smaller portions of Forest Grove's parks, recreation and library services.
We connected with Mayor Pete Truax to set up a time to discuss the measure. He brought much of the city's upper management with him to that meeting, including the city manager, police chief, fire chief, parks and recreation director, and library director. Whether or not they are confident that voters will again approve a version of the levy they've been authorizing since 2002, they're clearly not treating it as an easy layup.
Now, this is a tough ask for residents of Washington County's least affluent major city.
Five years after increasing the levy amount, Forest Grove is again asking for an increase — this time of 35 cents, up from $1.60 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That would bump it well above the amount that voters in nearby Hillsboro pay, which is $1.72 per $1,000 — a rate that will be maintained, not increased, if Hillsboroans approve a levy measure there. If voters in Forest Grove agree to the replacement levy, it would be the third time the rate has increased in the past two decades.
All that being said: Forest Grove has grown faster than Washington County's other major cities, which is really saying something. From 2010 to 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, Forest Grove's population increased by nearly one-quarter. It is now Washington County's fourth-largest city.
While it's a frustrating contrast for Forest Grove's taxpayers to be asked to shoulder a significant increase in their property tax bills at the same time Hillsboro expects to hold steady, the facts are simply that Forest Grove's needs are growing more rapidly than Hillsboro's.
Both cities tout themselves as "full-service cities" — as Truax notes with more than a bit of pride, Forest Grove actually has its own electric utility, giving it a better claim to that mantle than Hillsboro — with their own police and fire departments and parks and recreation systems. So while Tigard, for instance, was able to suffice with a 29-cent levy for public safety two years ago on top of one of the region's lowest permanent property tax rates, Tigard taxpayers are also spending $2.08 per $1,000 of assessed value to support Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, plus 9 cents per $1,000 for the Tigard Tualatin Aquatic District. In Forest Grove, fire services and the aquatic center are paid for by the general fund, which is heavily subsidized by the five-year local option levy.
The choice Forest Grove voters have is either to hold their noses and approve the 35-cent increase this May, or reject it and set off a scramble at City Hall to put together a measure voters can support in November. That could end up being the same measure, in hopes the electorate is more receptive by then. It could be a smaller tax increase, forcing the city to tighten its belt — likely by reducing services and laying off employees. City officials are adamant they cannot simply do without the levy, at least not without mass layoffs and major service reductions.
There's certainly an argument for trying to push city leaders back to the drawing board, to reassess whether they really need this large an increase in the tax rate. But after the time and consideration they gave the police station debate, and considering the full-court press they're making on the levy this spring, we're inclined to believe the ask on this ballot is an appropriate one. While it's a lot, so too is the amount of service Forest Grove must provide residents, and so too is the growth that Forest Grove is experiencing.
We recommend "yes" on Measure 34-312 to allow Forest Grove to meet the needs of its growing population.
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