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Voters may hold on to their money

• Pollster suggests that sluggish U.S. economy could doom local bond measures

The shaky economy appears to be souring local voters on tax and fee increases.

But that may not prevent a spate of money measures on the November ballot.

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler said Friday that the slipping economy makes him less likely to recommend a public safety levy on the November ballot.

'The public's confidence in the economy and their own situation is starting to deteriorate,' Wheeler said. 'As the economy heads south, so does people's willingness to support new tax measures.'

A Feb. 8 through Feb. 10 poll showed Washington County voters were in no mood to raise property taxes for road and bridge construction, said pollster Adam Davis, of Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Inc. Other polls show a 'pretty dramatic' change in voter attitudes since November and December, in tandem with the sliding economy, Davis said.

'This is a tough climate for funding measures,' said Davis, whose firm did its poll for Washington County. 'Everything has shifted down in terms of willingness to support funding levels.'

Yet the November election remains tempting for local officials.

Presidential elections boost voter turnout, which usually makes it easier to pass money measures. 'You've got to turn out those 18- to 34-year-olds, and we're going to see that in November,' Davis said.

Property tax measures held on other election dates still require a 50 percent-plus voter turnout to pass.

Portland Community College's board agreed Thursday to put a $370 million bond before voters in November. That's about $70 a year for owners of a house with $200,000 assessed value. (Assessed values on homes often are significantly below market value.)

'They've got a good argument to make to the public,' said political consultant Liz Kaufman, pointing to the demand for PCC classes and worker training programs that goes up during recessions. Kaufman will lead the bond campaign for PCC.

Some officials go ahead

The Portland City Council agreed last month to put another five-year Children's Investment Local Option Levy on the November ballot. That would cost about $80 a year for owners of a house assessed at $200,000.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, chief backer of the measure, was on vacation and couldn't be reached. But a campaign manager is at work on the effort.

Clackamas County has agreed to put a library levy on its November ballot, costing about $80 a year for a house assessed at $200,000.

County leaders didn't feel they had a choice, said Lynn Peterson, chairwoman of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners. The county faces dwindling federal timber revenues and is at the point of closing libraries.

Portland city Commissioner Sam Adams said Friday he still plans to put his street maintenance fee on the November ballot and won't be dissuaded by the recession. The fee would raise $422 million over 15 years. Most city residents would pay for the fee through a monthly $4.50 charge on their water and sewer bills.

Portland Public Schools also is studying a possible bond measure to refurbish its buildings. That measure could be the most expensive of all the ones being contemplated locally. But no decisions have been made yet on the size of the bond or when to go to the voters, said David Wynde, the Portland school board member serving as point man on facilities issues.

'This November is a window of opportunity,' Wynde said. But many factors must be considered before the district moves ahead on that or other dates, he said, including the impact of the economy on voter receptivity. The school board expects to decide in May how to proceed, Wynde said.

Voters could be selective

Wheeler said economic anxiety won't be a 'deal breaker' for county commissioners' decision about a November public safety levy. But Wheeler was taken aback by the recent sudden collapse of Bear Stearns, the fifth-largest investment bank on Wall Street.

'The fiscal outlook has changed dramatically for the worse just in the last few weeks,' Wheeler said at a Thursday session of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.

Wheeler said he is reluctant to bank on passage of a public safety levy when he submits his proposed 2008-09 budget next month.

Some have hoped that a public safety levy might help open the completed but never-opened Wapato jail. Wheeler said that he is trying to find money through the county's operating budget to open the Wapato jail, and even that might be difficult.

Kaufman, who has worked on several ballot measure campaigns, said it's always tough to pass money measures, but it's clearly harder now.

'I think people in tighter times are not so interested in the new; they're interested in fixing up what they've got,' she said.

Education remains a top concern among local voters, Davis said. But he predicts voters will be selective in November.

'I think you're going to have some of these measures pass and some of them will not,' he said.

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