County vehicle registration fee needed now
"Pay yourself first" is a phrase common in personal finance planning, but it's been missing in Clackamas County when it comes to meeting our expanding transportation needs. As long as I have been politically involved in Clackamas County government, which includes serving as mayor of Milwaukie or as a business advocate, there has been one problem that has never been resolved — and that is the inadequate funding of transportation.
Generally speaking, transportation funding is divvied up among Oregon counties by the state based on number of vehicle registrations. The funding stream is cobbled together by revenue from the gas tax, vehicle-registration fees and weight-mile tax on large haul vehicles.
Clackamas County has approximately 1,400 miles of roadway, perhaps our county's' single biggest asset. At the same time we are millions of dollars behind in maintenance — including our local roads in unincorporated areas — and every year we fall deeper into the hole. House Bill 2017 (the transportation funding bill passed by the state legislature in 2017) helps reduce the size of the hole, but it does not come close to addressing all of the needs of our residents and businesses.
How is Clackamas County different from other Portland area counties? For a start, Washington County has 100 fewer miles of paved roads, but has four sources of local road maintenance funding totaling $49 million each year — and that's in addition to the state highway funding.
Multnomah County has several bridges and only 230 road miles to maintain — over 1,100 miles fewer than we have, but has two local sources of road maintenance funds that bring in $17 million each year in addition to the state highway funding.
Clackamas County has no additional funding sources for road maintenance.
Every year we wait, more roads require reconstruction.
Every year we wait, the costs of reconstruction rise.
Every year we wait, our roads become more congested.
Every year we wait, more and more people move to our area, making safety improvements more important than ever.
Whether for road maintenance, improving safety, reducing congestion or improving access, we have tried many times without success for voter support for local road funds. We have spent years informing the public, and generally we have had support from the people we have been able to reach.
Frankly, we cannot wait any longer. The Board of County Commissioners is proposing to adopt an ordinance for a $30 annual vehicle-registration fee (VRF) that would apply throughout Clackamas County. We're holding public hearings so that we will have a chance to hear comments from the public.
Oregon law requires that VRF revenue be split, with 60 percent going to the county and 40 percent going to cities based on population. However, we have committed to a 50/40/10 split, with 50 percent of the funds going to the county and setting aside the additional 10 percent of the county's share in a strategic investment fund to partner on shared projects with our cities. The cities would still receive their 40 percent to help meet needs on their roadways.
You might think, "I pay enough taxes to the county," but the fact is, state law does not allow the county to spend property taxes on road maintenance.
For more information about the proposed countywide VRF and the upcoming meetings, please visit our website at clackamas.us/transportation/vrf.
We, your county commissioners, were elected to make the tough decisions, not to pass them on to the next group of decision-makers. Let's pay ourselves first by funding projects we value and stop "kicking the can down the road!"
Jim Bernard is Clackamas County Commission chair.