Metro fast-tracks homeless measure to serve Portland region
Metro, the regional government, is rushing to refer an annual $250 million to $300 million homeless services measure to the May 19 primary election ballot.
The Metro Council has scheduled its first and only public hearing on the measure for the evening of Thursday, Feb. 13 — just eight days after the proposal was first formally presented to the elected regional government by the HereTogether advocacy organization.
A tentative council vote to refer the measure to the ballot is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 20.
The Feb. 13 hearing will follow three public forums on the measure held this week in each of the counties within Metro's jurisdiction. The Washington County forum was held at the Beaverton Library on Monday, Feb. 10. The Clackamas County forum was held Tuesday, Feb. 11, and the Multnomah County forum was held Wednesday, Feb. 12. All three featured officials representing each county, including some of their metro councilors.
Many questioned remain about the measure, however. They include how much it will raise, who will collect it, and how it will be spent.
HereTogether has asked Metro to raise up to $300 million per year for a variety of services, including mental health and addiction treatment. Metro official have said they are consider a 1% personal income tax on individuals earning more $125,000 per year and couples earning more than $250,000 per year. However, it is unclear how much such a tax would raise. A previous ECONorthwest analysis prepared for Metro said a 1% income tax would raise only $100 million.
Few details about the measure were available when the forums and hearings were announced last week. Metro President Lynn Peterson explained it was needed to help address the homeless crisis during her State of the Region address before the City Club of Portland on Friday, Feb. 7.
"I can't sit here while people die in tents on the streets, parks and alleyways and parking lots across the region," said Peterson, who noted Metro voters approved its $652.8 million affordable housing bond measure at the November 2018 general election.
But Peterson did not say exactly who would be taxed under the new measure, how much money would be raised, which agency would spend the funds, or who would receive them.
That same day, Metro Council Sam Chase, who supports the measure, sent out an email saying it would include a 1% per person income tax on individuals earning more than $125,000 per year and couples earning more than $250,000 per year. But contacted by the Portland Tribune, Chase could not say how much that would raise, explaining that such details would be included in a report that had not yet been released.
No additional details were presented at the Washington County forum. Peterson repeated her call for more homeless service funds, which Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington echoed. But the report had still not been released — and was not available by press time for this story, either.
Instead, the hundreds of people who attended the forum mostly talked about their sincere beliefs that more should be done to end homelessness, without reacting to a specific funding and spending plan. A show of hands revealed that about half of them were service providers and the rest were concerned citizens.
The rush and lack of details prompted the editorial boards of the Portland Tribune and The Oregonian to urge Metro to slow down and consider placing the measure on the November general election ballot.
Metro has long planned to refer a $4.2 billion regional transportation funding measure to the November ballot, however. Placing another money measure on the same ballot could threaten it.
Except for the Portland City Council, no government in the region has ever imposed an income tax before, according to available records. The City Council imposed a temporary income tax to raise funds for schools in the 1980s and currently collects a $35 per year Arts Tax. But an ongoing, progressive income tax to support social service programs would be first in the region.
State law allows Metro and other taxing district to impose a maximum 1% personal income tax. There's no doubt that it could raise a lot of money. According to the Oregon Department of Revenue, taxpayers in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties reported nearly $54 billion in taxable income in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available. A 1% personal income tax would have raised $540 million then, although the full amount would not be available to Metro because its boundaries do not include all of each county.
Raising the minimum income levels to $125,000 and $250,000 would significantly reduce the amount that could be collected, however. And the ECONorthwest consulting firm previously estimated that a 1% personal income tax would only raise $100 million for Metro's transportation measure.
Spending the money is another issue. Despite helping to finance affordable housing projects in the region, Metro has no experience funding social services. Peterson and Chase both talked about forming partnerships with other governments and nonprofit organizations, but no such agreements have yet been announced, let alone finalized.
Multnomah County would receive the largest share if the funds are distributed in proportion to where the come from. Multnomah County taxpayers account for around 41% of all adjusted gross income in the region. Washington County is second at about 33% and Clackamas County is third at around 24%. Most social service agencies currently are located in Multnomah County, however.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.