Update: Hughes says vote still scheduled for Dec. 18

Most mayors in the region, including Forest Grove's Pete Truax, have asked the Metro Council to delay its decision to place a levy in front of voters next year.

Truax was one of 18 mayors from Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties who signed a letter to Metro Council President Tom Hughes last week challenging the schedule for floating the ballot measure, called the Metro Natural Area Levy. The levy would temporarily boost property taxes to maintain and enhance the open spaces it has acquired through previous levies.

Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin said Tuesday his name and signature were also supposed to be on the letter. "I'm not sure what happened," he said.

Truax said his signature mostly represented his frustration over a "lack of communication" between the Metro Council and regional mayors.

"We're getting the impression we're not being listened to," said Truax, who's been part of an informal monthly gathering of mayors initiated by Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden last year. "Metro is not paying a whole lot of attention to what the mayors in the cities they represent have to say."

According to Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey, who spearheaded the writing of the Nov. 30 letter, the mayors are afraid passage of such a levy could reduce some of the cities' budgets because of "compression," a side effect of Oregon's complicated property tax limitation plan that causes property owners in some cities to pay a disproportionate amount in taxes levied by other jurisdictions.

"We need time to study whether the levy will transfer operating funds out of our budgets to Metro," said Willey.

Compression issue isn't a factor in Forest Grove, Truax said, but the pace of the proposal is.

"Their game plan is to move it forward," he said of the timetable Metro seems to be setting up to place the measure on the ballot next year. "It causes us some angst."

Willey's letter was approved at the mayors' gathering last month. Most mayors in the region attended and supported the letter, except Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who does not attend the meetings.

Washington County Chair Andy Duyck has also expressed concerns to Hughes and Metro staff members working on the proposal, which could appear on the May 2013 ballot.

Reduce tax collections

The Metro Council is scheduled to place the measure on the ballot at its Dec. 18 meeting. A resolution to ask voters to approve a five-year levy has already been drafted.

In a Dec. 6 reply to Willey, Hughes said the vote is still planned for Dec. 18.

"While the impacts of compression are important, also important are the opinions of the voters. At every step of the way, they have affirmed that the protection of open spaces and habitat for fish and wildlife is a top priority. We have an obligation to our region’s voters to make the most of these natural areas by removing invasive plants and investing in basic maintenance now. Acting today will reduce long term costs and improve opportunities to enjoy them for our entire community," Hughes wrote.

The resolution does not specify an amount to be requested. Internal documents show Metro is considering a levy of around 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, which would cost the owner of a $200,000 house $20 a year.

According to the draft resolution, the levy would raise funds to maintain and enhance approximately 16,000 acres of open space and natural lands that Metro has acquired since 1995. The resolution says 12,400 acres have been purchased with the proceeds of two bond measures approved by Metro voters in May 1995 and November 2006. The remaining acres were acquired through voluntary transfers from local governments.

The 1995 and 2006 bond measures did not specify that any of their funds could be used to maintain or enhance the properties, however. In April 2012, the Metro Council directed the government’s chief operating officer to establish a Natural Areas Funding Advisory Panel to consider a new funding source for that purpose. In August the panel recommend a five-year levy.

Polls say levy would pass

Metro has conducted extensive polling that indicates such a measure would pass, especially of the ballot title says the funds will also be used to improve water quality for fish and wildlife habitat. With that language, the measure was approved by more than 60 percent of voters in polls conducted by the Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall research firm of Portland.

An online survey conduct through Metro’s own Opt In program showed similar results. The Opt In survey found support for the measure strongest in Multnomah County at 68 percent, followed by Washington County at 60 percent and Clackamas County at 56 percent.

The properties acquired by Metro are distributed throughout the region. Some have been improved and opened to the public. They include the Cooper Mountain Nature Park in Washington County, Beggar’s Tick Wildlife Refuge in Multnomah County and Mount Talbert Nature Park in Clackamas County.

The letter-signing mayors are worried over how the regional measure might affect their governments’ own possible measures.

That's because, under the rules of Oregon's complex tax code, if a property tax rate gets too high within a taxing district, funds for local goverments may be reduced (or "compressed").

Result of Measure 5

"Compression is a result of Ballot Measure 5, which set the maximum combined general government tax rate at $10 per $1,000 of real market value," explained Forest Grove finance director Paul Downey. For Forest Grove, the combined rate is $8.31, "so there is $1.69 remaining before general governments reach the $10 rate limit and compression begins," he added.

The Metro natural area proposal wouldn't push Forest Grove over the limit. Still, Truax is worried about Washington County cities girding up park plans in other municipalities at Metro's behest.

"How much money from Washington County goes to paying for parks in Multnomah County?" he asked.

In addition to the compression question and issues of regional equity, Willey said the mayors are concerned the levy will not generate enough money to maintain and enhance all of Metro's properties. He noted the regional government will has millions of dollars for acquiring more parcels remaining from the 2006 bond measure.

Nancy Townsley contributed to this report.

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