Our Opinion: Another money measure charges into Valley of Death
Here we go again.
Just two weeks ago, we recounted, in our special "Decade in Review" issue, the sad saga of Tigard's failed community/recreation center bond measure in 2015.
That year, Tigard and the YMCA of Columbia-Willamette commissioned a survey that showed that residents thought it would be great to have a rec center in town, but well under a majority actually wanted to have their property taxes raised to pay for it.
The Tigard City Council gambled that residents' desire for a rec center would outweigh their reticence. It didn't. The bond measure failed by a roughly two-to-one margin. To this day, the idea of building a rec center in Tigard with public monies remains the third rail of city politics.
From our Decade in Review feature, read our story on the 2015 failure of a recreation center bond in Tigard.
Then, in 2018, the Tigard City Council again went to voters with hat in hand, asking city residents to approve a local option levy. Into this levy, the city stuffed the proverbial kitchen sink, dedicating money for police, parks and the Tigard Public Library. All of those are popular things in Tigard, as they are in most cities. But with three areas of the budget included in the levy — as well as a citizen advisory group pushing for a levy measure that didn't just maintain current service levels, but would give the city enough new money to expand and improve services — the total amount of $1.18 per $1,000 of assessed value was just too steep, even in a strong economic climate. For a typical home valued at $280,000, that would have amounted to a $330.40 property tax hike per year for five years.
Unsurprisingly, voters shot the levy down, and Tigard was forced to instate $11 million in budget cuts. The city had struck out swinging for a home run when a single would have tied the game.
All of this history is instructive as we look at the levy that the Tigard City Council referred this week to the May 19, 2020, ballot.
The levy is smaller, at least, than the 2018 monstrosity — significantly smaller. City officials have learned that lesson. It's a comparatively svelte 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or "only" $81 per year.
But as for the lesson of 2015, it doesn't seem to have been taken to heart. That spring, city councilors saw survey results that cast significant doubt as to whether their measure could pass — and yet they referred it to the ballot anyway, with only one councilor voting "no." The campaign was grueling, complaints were filed, feelings were hurt, some relationships were permanently damaged, and at the end of it all, the outcome that had always been most likely came to pass: Voters rejected the measure by an overwhelming margin.
Last year, Tigard City Hall contracted with DHM Research, a respected local pollster, to survey voter support for a levy at several different amounts. Results that came back for a 46-cent levy were wretched, with just 37% of respondents to the initial question offering support and few changing their mind even after being presented with arguments in favor of the levy. Results for two lower levy amounts, including the 29-cent option, were little better.
And yet the Tigard City Council voted Tuesday to go ahead with the 29-cent levy on the May ballot anyway.
At times over the years, it has seemed the guiding philosophy in Tigard is "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." That's an admirable thing to teach kindergarteners, but we'd like Tigard's leaders to keep another kindergarten lesson in mind: "ears open, mouth closed." Listen to voters and ask them what they actually are willing to pay for, instead of pushing options they don't want.
It's true that Tigard voters rejected a bond measure to build the current library in 1998 before they approved a similar bond four years later. City officials scaled down their ask, allowed a few years of "cooling off" and made a more persuasive pitch that led to the construction of the library.
It's also true that Tigard had to try twice to win voter backing for a parks bond, with a more expensive measure failing in 2009 before a lower-cost measure — which also had a 29-cent rate, coincidentally or otherwise — squeaked through the following year.
But those successful votes were 18 and 10 years ago, respectively. Tigard's track record since then in getting voters to support money measures has not been good. And it's troubling that even after sending a doomed measure to the ballot in 2015 despite polls showing it wouldn't pass, and even after gambling on an overstuffed measure in 2018 that was never likely to be approved, the Tigard City Council looks at a bevy of bad poll numbers and, in 2020, says, "Well, let's try this again."
You might notice that we haven't discussed anything so far in this editorial of what the 2020 levy option would do. Quite simply, it isn't relevant unless the measure can win voter support. With "low and soft" support for the levy as tested by DHM Research, that looks unlikely.
Yes, we'd like to see a bolstered police force in Tigard, a rapidly growing midsize city where law enforcement has been stretched too thin for too long. And we understand why city staff and members of the council are eager to see that shortage addressed.
Polls can be wrong, and educational campaigns can be persuasive. And after all, if city leaders somehow manage to marshal voters' support for this do-over levy, it wouldn't be the first time — even if it would be the first time in quite a while. But right now, this rush to the May ballot has all the hallmarks of the failed rec center pitch in 2015 and the failed "all that and a bag of chips" local option levy in 2018.
There is a risk of diminishing returns. It's not quite the fable of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," but each time the Tigard City Council pushes a measure to the ballot and it gets trashed at Election Night, the city loses a little more face. If that isn't a concern for Tigard's leaders, perhaps it should be.
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