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Advisory measure could delay final vote for months

It could be months before the City Council takes a final vote on the proposed street fee, and the question of whether it will be referred to the ballot is still up in the air.

The confusion was clear during what had been billed as the final public hearing on the proposal by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick last Thursday. Although Hales previously had declared the council will put an advisory measure on the May 19 special election ballot, that decision was put off until Jan. 20, at the earliest. And Novick agreed to figure out whether the math behind the nonresidential portion is as flawed as critics claim.

All of which means that after eight months of increasingly contentious debate and endless revisions, the fee proposal is still not ready for prime time, and may never be. No other council member agreed to support an advisory ballot measure that will determine the final version of the residential portion, as Hales wants. And it is unclear whether the council can even vote on the measure next week. No measure can be referred to the ballot without a title written by the City Attorney’s Office and approved by the council.

Beyond that, Multnomah County elections officials say they need to consult with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office about what form an advisory measure can take. According to county elections director Tim Scott, no one in his office has any experience with them.

Even if the council ultimately approves a proposal based on the advisory vote, it could be referred to the ballot, delaying the final decision yet again. The grassroots No Portland Street Fee group already has promised to refer whatever the council approves to the ballot. If it is a progressive income tax, the group is likely to be supported by business organizations.

Reversal of fortunes

For Hales and Novick, Thursday’s hearing represented an almost complete reversal in their approach to determining the fee. When they first unveiled it in May, both men thought Commissioner Amanda Fritz had agreed to support it, meaning they could pass it even if commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman did not go along. Because of that, Hales and Novick struck an arrogant tone at the news conference, saying voters could throw them out of office in 2016 if they didn’t like the plan.

But last Thursday, Hales and Novick repeatedly urged the crowd that packed the council chambers to tell them what options they would like the advisory ballot measure to include. Ideas included a gas tax, a property tax levy, an income tax, a payroll tax, a vehicle registration fee, and some combination of them. Several witnesses said they wanted “none of the above” to be included. Some questioned the need for an advisory measure, however, with frequent critic Joe Walsh referring to it as “toilet paper.”

Hales and Novick deferred when Southeast Uplift President Robert McCullough presented his critique of the calculations behind the nonresidential portion. The economic consultant said internal Portland Bureau of Transportation spreadsheets had so many errors that some small businesses would be charged too much while major transportation companies that damage the streets would pay almost nothing. Instead of questioning McCullough, Novick agreed to refer the nonresidential portion back to his office for further study. Hales promised the council will not enact it before approving the residential portion.

The original proposal would have raised around $50 million a year for maintenance and safety projects. It included a monthly fee on households and a fee on nonresidential properties based on the motor vehicle trips they are estimated to generate.

The most recent proposal included a gasoline-user fee based on income and a sliding scale for businesses, governments and nonprofits based on such factors as gross revenue and number of employees. It was estimated to raise $46 million a year. It is on hold as Hales and Novick see if they can get a third vote for an advisory ballot measure and whether McCullough is right about the nonresidential calculations, however.

Measure costly, potentially meaningless

Even if the council agrees to place an advisory measure on the May 19 ballot, it could be expensive and not provide any reliable information about what option most Portlanders actually prefer. Hales admits the election could cost the city between $100,000 and $300,000. But relatively few Portland voters ever participate in such elections.

State election law already has set May 19 as a “special election,” mostly for special district board members, but also for measures that any government wants to put on the ballot. For elections held in Multnomah County, it usually costs around $400,000. The biggest factor is how many voters return their vote-by-mail ballots. The higher the return rate, the more temporary workers the county has to hire.

The final cost is split proportionally among those governments with candidates and measures on the ballot. Larger governments pay more, and costs also increase with the number of candidates and measures each government places on the ballot. Although the positions up for election are set, no other government in the county has indicated it plans to place a measure on the ballot yet.

It is hard to predict how many Portlanders would even vote on the street fee measure. May elections in odd-numbered years do not generate as many votes as those held in even-numbered years, when national, state, regional, county and city candidates are on the May primary election ballot.

A good example is the May 2009 special election where LaVonne Griffin-Valade ran unopposed to replace City Auditor Gary Blackmer, who had resigned. County records show only about 14 percent of voters returned their ballots.

However, participation was much higher in the May 2013 special election because of a controversial measure on the ballot — fluoridating Portland’s water supply. About 40 percent voted that time.

Although the street fee also is controversial, the proposed ballot measure would only be advisory. In contrast, in 2013, Portland voters actually repealed the fluoridation plan approved by the council. If participation is closer to 2009 levels, even the most popular option might be supported by less than 10 percent of all registered city voters — hardly a mandate for the council to pursue it.

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