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Survey says: boosting city levy will be a challenge

Voters are unlikely to support an increase of Forest Grove property taxes

Oh, the economy may still be frightful, but according to a new poll, most taxpayers in Forest Grove are willing to continue paying a bit more in taxes to receive city services.

Like many Oregon cities, Forest Grove can't fund all its current services with its basic property tax rate. So, like several local governments, the city asks its residents to pay a bit more in the form of a separate property tax levy.

Currently, Forest Grove property owners are paying a surcharge of $1.35 per $1,000 of assessed value each year, which comes to about $200 for a $150,000 home. The levy is expected to bring in about $1.5 million this year and will fund a variety of services, including parks, libraries and public safety.

But the levy, which voters passed easily in 2007, expires in 2013, so city officials need to plan for what happens then. To gauge voters' moods, the city paid Campbell DeLong Resources, a Portland market research firm, $20,950 to poll 200 city residents in November about their willingness to open their wallets.

The findings, which were presented to city councilors and city department heads Tuesday evening, indicate that while voters can be persuaded to extend the current rate, it would be a tough campaign to get them to pay a bit more. Specifically, the poll found:

• 55 percent of those polled indicated strong support for renewing the $1.35 rate.

• 41 percent would agree to bump the rate to $1.85.

• 25 percent would support hiking the rate to $2.25.

While the support for renewing the levy is welcome news for the councilors, they still have significant challenges.

First, existing tax revenues are lagging behind current expenses. Even if a new $1.35 levy were approved, the city would likely need to trim programs and services.

Plus, there's no guarantee that voter's won't change their minds next year, when the levy could appear on the May or November ballot.

Martha DeLong, who analyzed the survey findings for the city, said support for money measures typically erodes as Election Day draws near. But City Manager Michael Sykes said he was encouraged by the results for the $1.35 levy.

"I think that's a pretty solid number," he said. "Five years ago, in the election, we did better than that. But, of course, that was in a better economy."

Indeed the 2007 levy passed with 63 percent of the vote, but the road to victory was paved with potholes.

In November 2006, the levy question appeared on a ballot crowded with money measures and narrowly failed to gain a majority of votes. The next spring, after a re-tooled campaign, it passed, but the results didn't count because turnout was too law. Finally in November 2007 it passed and counted.

Sykes said will be important to get community groups and city advisory panels involved in the process before any decision are made.

Toward that end, DeLong will be back in Forest Grove on Jan. 4 to present her findings at a community meeting. Sykes said he also expects the levy to be discussed at the All Town Meeting on Jan. 28.