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Street problems won't be resolved, but plan could ease pain

After eight months of fruitless debate over a possible new street fee, Commissioner Amanda Fritz has suddenly come up with a plan to dedicate more money to infrastructure maintenance.

What’s more, a majority of the City Council supports it.

Fritz has introduced a resolution to be considered Wednesday that would commit half of all year-end balances and projected one-time funds to such projects. That’s an increase over the one-quarter of surplus funds now dedicated to maintenance.

“The council must show discipline in assigning resources to the most urgent capital repair needs, particularly in being good stewards of the buildings, streets, and other infrastructure owned by the people of Portland,” Fritz said when announcing the resolution.

The resolution also repeals a target of spending 28 percent of utility license fees on street maintenance set by the council in 1988. It has never been met.

It is not clear how much money would go to streets compared to parks and other city assets, but Mayor Charlie Hales, Commissioner Nick Fish, and Commissioner Steve Novick all support the resolution.

“I think it’s a great idea. And note that the 50 percent is a floor, not a ceiling,” says Novick, who co-sponsored the proposed street fee with Hales. Work on it has been suspended while the 2015 Oregon Legislature considers a possible transportation funding package.

The resolution may not make a significant difference, however. Although the ending balance in this year’s budget is not yet known, only $14.4 million in one-time funds has been identified in next year’s budget — and the resolution would only dedicate $7.2 million of that to infrastructure maintenance.

That’s a small percentage of the city’s overall needs. For example, the 2013 Citywide Assets Report reveals that the Portland Bureau of Transportation alone has an annual funding gap for infrastructure maintenance and replacement of existing assets of $153.4 million per year. The report also says Portland Parks and Recreation’s annual funding gap for infrastructure maintenance and replacement of existing assets is $28.1 million per year. The aging Portland Building needs millions of dollars in repairs and maintenance.

Still, Fritz says it’s the right thing to do.

“Fiscal responsibility, basic services, and stewardship of our infrastructure must continue to be primary drivers of all budget decisions, she said.

Hales agrees. According to spokesman Dana Haynes, “In 2013, his themes were ‘Back to Basics’ and taking care of what we have. That’s how we got from paving fewer than 30 miles per year to more than 100 miles per year without any additional funds.”

Fritz asked City Budget Office staff to begin drafting the new policy in November 2014. Fish says he helped her write it. The policy, if adopted, would apply process for adopting the annual budget that takes effect in July 15.

Dedication of the funds to transportation, parks, and emergency management would sunset after four years. The council could decide whether to renew those target areas or chose new or additional ones in 2019.

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