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Two-cent fuel tax could fix Cornelius road maintenance woes

ELECTION -- Station owners worry the two-cent hike will keep folks from gassing up locally

A pair of pennies doesn't buy a lot these days, but Cornelius city officials hope that a two-cent-per-gallon fuel tax may solve some of the town's road-maintenance problems.

Some gas station owners in Cornelius are worried the tax, which is on the Nov. 7 ballot, will make drivers less likely to stop in the city to pump their cars full of petroleum.

'We try to get people to stop here. The gas tax will chase people away,' said Choy Saeteurn, owner of the Union 76 gas station at the east end of Cornelius.

Saeteurn said that most of his business comes from people traveling between Hillsboro and Forest Grove who know Cornelius generally has lower gas prices.

Even though an extra two cents per gallon won't bust customers' budgets, it may be enough to deflate Cornelius' status as a destination for fueling up, he added.

'This is a small area and it's very competitive,' noted Josh Carrington, manager of the Shell station in Cornelius, who said most of his clients also come from out of town. 'Right now, we're the cheapest in the area. If we raise the gas by two cents, they'll go to other areas. There will be no reason to go to Cornelius to get gas.'

The future of the proposed fuel tax is now in the hands of Cornelius voters. The Cornelius City Council approved the tax in March after a special revenue committee recommended it as a way to raise money for road maintenance.

However, Bob Barman, owner of the town's other Union 76 station, helped launch a petition in April to put the issue before voters. By May, supporters of the petition succeeded in gathering signatures from more than 15 percent of registered voters in Cornelius - 539 people - which is required to put an initiative on the city ballot.

Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle said he doesn't believe the tax would negatively affect fuel retailers in the city because the price hike won't have much of an impact on consumers' wallets. He noted that filling an 18-gallon gas tank would only cost 36 cents more if the tax were approved.

Most of the tax burden would fall on the 40,000 people who pass through Cornelius daily, most of whom don't pay for the repair and maintenance of the streets they regularly drive on, said Waffle. 'It's a user fee for people using the roads. There's a pretty direct connection there.'

If it is approved by voters, the fuel tax is estimated to raise an additional $180,000 annually for the city's streets and pathways fund.

A tight budget has resulted in a backlog of about 12 blocks the city needs to rebuild.

'We've fallen behind in taking care of our streets,' said Waffle, who noted that while Oregon hasn't raised its gas tax since 1993, the cost of petroleum, a key component in asphalt - keeps rising.

While the advantages of passing the fuel tax measure are pretty clear-cut for Cornelius residents, Waffle said, it's possible some will vote against it as a backlash against high gas prices. 'Voters may be motivated by principal.'

In addition to the fuel tax proposal, Cornelius also has a police and fire levy on the ballot. The levy would raise property taxes by 46 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. On a home with an assessed value of $200,000, that adds up to $92.

In the coming decade, Cornelius' population is expected to grow from about 10,500 people to 18,000.

In the 10-year span the local option levy would be in place, it would raise $2.9 million for public safety equipment like replacement fire engines, brush trucks and police vehicles, as well as equipment like patrol car accessories, communication equipment and a new speed indicator.

Some of the money would also be used to fund the city's portion of a new rural fire substation.

Cornelius Police Chief Paul Rubenstein said that certain expenses, like computer and vehicle replacements are required, and the police department must find a way to pay for them.

'Those items, if taken out of the general fund, will cut from something else,' he said. 'Without them, we can't provide our services.'