Homeless tax idea needs a lot more conversation
Advocates for a new tax to fund homeless services are dead-on correct about one thing — the explosion of homelessness has changed the character of Portland. It is no longer the pleasant city it once was.
But we — and, we suspect, many other metropolitan-area residents — will require a great deal of persuasion before agreeing that the Metro regional government and a proposed local income tax are the best vehicles to restore Portland to its former, less gritty and more compassionate state of being.
As reported by the Tribune last week, the Metro council is rushing to place a measure on the May ballot to raise up to $300 million per year for homeless services. This is the same Metro government that just 16 months ago convinced voters to approve $653 million in bonds to build affordable housing in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. And it is the very same Metro government that's been pushing toward a November ballot measure to raise $4.1 billion for transportation projects.
Metro's revenue ambitions, when taken in context with all other measures that have or will appear on a ballot near you, raise an immediate question about tax fatigue and whether Portland-area residents will continue to support ever-increasing taxes, no matter how worthy the cause. But before broaching that issue, there are a number of other questions that give us pause about the homeless tax proposal in particular:
• First is the matter of Metro's charter and whether this extended foray into homelessness fits with Metro's supposed mission. Agency leaders point to a clause in the 1992 charter, as amended in 2000 and 2002, that grants Metro authority to assume responsibility for future issues of "metropolitan concern." But homelessness, as we noted during the 2018 debate over the housing bonds, is a large leap from Metro's traditional domain, which has included land-use and transportation planning, management of regional facilities such as the Oregon Zoo, and disposal of solid waste.
Yes, it's likely that Metro would just collect this tax and pass the money through to the counties and their service providers, but the rushed nature of this proposal has provided no time for the public to discuss whether Metro ought to be venturing so far from its previous role.
• The tax as currently envisioned targets the affluent, but it opens the door to a regional income tax, which is a massive policy change that ought to receive far more discussion. It's obvious that polling is driving the current tax design. It would be levied on individuals who make more than $125,000 per year or families whose income exceeds $250,000. Everyone loves a tax that someone else will pay.
However, this proposal will revive memories of the Multnomah County I-Tax of the mid-2000s, which proved onerous and unstainable, while also being difficult to unwind once implemented. Metro-area residents should think twice before adding a local income tax on top of one of the highest state income taxes in the nation.
• Supporters of this tax have yet to specify how the money would be collected, whether Metro has the authority to levy the full amount, how much it would cost to administer and how exactly it would be spent. There may be time to flesh this out between now and the May election, but as of now, it looks too much like writing a blank check to someone who says "trust us."
Many other questions need answering: How will this funding be used to actually move people off the streets and into shelters or housing? How does the money get distributed in an equitable manner across the region? Are there other, better ways to raise money for homeless services, either through public or private means?
The backers of this proposal have a lot of explaining to do, but we also want to acknowledge they are absolutely right about two aspects of homelessness. First, it is a regional problem demanding regional coordination and action. Homelessness is not an issue just for Portland or Multnomah County, but for the entire metro area.
Second, the permanent housing being built with public dollars and the shelter beds coming online through both public and nonprofit efforts are not sufficient by themselves to make a measurable impact on street-level homelessness. As Mitch Hornecker, vice chair of the HereTogether coalition, says, the communities that have made progress on homelessness have combined housing with the necessary services to keep homeless people from returning to their tents.
In arguing for an open mind toward the proposed measure, Hornecker asks whether "we are willing to keep living like we are living in Portland," with the unsightly camps and the knowledge that fellow humans have no warm, dry place to live.
That's a crucial point, which compels regional leaders to cooperate toward better outcomes. But this proposal is coming together so quickly that it creates skepticism about its design and prospects for success. Let's not forget the lessons from other unvetted taxes, such as the flawed Portland Art Tax and the Portland Clean Energy Tax, which is now expected to raise far more money from more businesses than promised.
To qualify for the May ballot, the Metro council must make a decision by the end of this month. That's a scarce amount of time to weigh regional priorities, such as roads vs. homelessness, and even less time to put together a full-fledged, thoughtful plan for how another $300 million in annual revenue will change the dreary reality of local homelessness.
Metro councilors should take a step back and first decide whether this is really their mission, and if so, whether it is more immediate than the transportation measure. It might make more sense to push this conversation out to November, because taking on too much too fast usually leads to failure.
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