Voters not in mood to spend
Public opinion research recently conducted in Washington County tells a cautionary story for government leaders throughout the Portland metropolitan area who are looking for taxpayers to support a variety of November money measures.
Pollsters asked Washington County voters about their willingness to approve $110 to $200 in additional annual property taxes to pay for a specific set of priority road and bridge projects - and 53 percent to 61 percent said they were opposed.
This unfavorable response comes from a county that consistently in the past has won strong voter support for similar improvement measures and in recent years has received voter approval to fund libraries, expand sheriff patrols and fire services, as well as build new schools and add more teachers.
Ballot will be crowded
The list of potential fall ballot measures already is long. The city of Portland has two measures slated to be decided in November: A renewal of a five-year city property tax for the Children's Investment Fund and the referral of a proposed street-maintenance fee.
Clackamas County voters are expected to decide on whether or not to support a library taxing district in November, which would help make up for, in part, the loss of $12.5 million in timber receipts from the federal rural schools program and rural road program.
County commissioners are still deciding whether to place that measure on the ballot.
Meanwhile, Portland Community College will ask voters to approve a bond measure to add and refurbish buildings and classrooms.
Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler is pondering a $25 to $30 million public safety levy and a proposal to double the state's vehicle car registration fee to pay for a new Sellwood Bridge. And the Portland school board is considering whether to ask voters to approve a bond measure to repair aging schools that could cost as much as $900 million.
While we admit that a strong case can be made to support each of these measures, voters ultimately will have the last word.
Elected leaders should take note of what the Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall polling firm discovered in Washington County and in similar research conducted elsewhere. Voters are content with the direction in which their communities are headed.
As a result, they point to no definitive issues - such as congestion or public safety - that they are readily willing to pay more tax dollars to improve.
The reason may be twofold: Voter concern over a declining economy and what pollster Adam Davis calls a disconnect between proposed new taxes and what voters really are interested in - their own quality of life.
Leaders must take note
Such concerns, Davis said, are pushing voters to look closer to home to determine the things that they value and will pay for.
Education continues to rank high, but even then voters focus their support on schools that educate younger students.
Livability does matter, he said - which means the public increasingly likes parks, transit and pedestrian walkways.
'People are feeling stressed, tapped out and anxious about the future. When people feel this way, they focus on priorities,' Davis said.
It seems to us that this will require local leaders to consider doing at least two things: Diminishing the number of tax measures they ask voters to support and taking considerably more effort to link funding measures to what citizens care about within their own neighborhoods.
But Davis advises that it will be increasingly tough without significant campaign funds to alter current public opinion.
Given that the May primary is less than three months away and the November general election eight months away, local leaders have much to decide upon to be able to win support from voters who are increasingly anxious and tightfisted with their pocketbooks.