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Street fee goes down to the wire

As plan gets final tweaks, businesses brace in case of fight

Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams says the final version of his proposed Street Maintenance and Safety Fee won't be available until Wednesday or Thursday - less than a week before the first Portland City Council hearing on the plan to raise millions for road repairs and improvements.

'The draft plan has been out since June or July, but we've been hearing back from the public and will be incorporating their comments in the final version,' Adams said.

Adams is developing the fee to generate more than $280 million to improve city streets over the next 10 years.

Residents would be charged $4.54 a month on their city water and sewer bills. Businesses would pay more - in some cases, much more - depending on how many motor vehicle trips they generate.

Lobbyists representing service stations and convenience stores are waiting to see the final proposal before deciding whether to support or oppose it.

In a Dec. 11 letter to the council, the lobbyists said they are considering referring the proposal to the May primary election ballot, and then waging a 'long, costly and highly visible' campaign to defeat it.

'For some of my members, it's a matter of not being able to pay any cost increases,' said Richard Kosesan, a Salem-based lobbyist representing the Oregon Neighborhood Store Association, which includes many small Portland convenience stores.

In recent weeks Adams has tried to respond to the lobbyists' concerns by lowering the proposed fee for the busiest convenience stores from $511 to $138 a month. Such a reduction may not be enough to defuse the opposition, however.

'Adams calls it a fee, but it's really tax,' Kosesan said. 'Ten (dollars) a month is a fee. One hundred dollars a month, well, I consider that a tax.'

Although Kosesan insisted his organization has not yet decided to oppose the proposal, he already knows what it would take to refer it to the ballot.

'It's 6 percent of the previous municipal primary election, which means we'd have to collect 18,135 valid voter signatures within 30 days of council approval,' Kosesan said. 'That's an abbreviated time frame, but we can do it if we have to.'

Other lobbyists who signed the letter are Mark Nelson, representing 7-Eleven Inc.; Paul Romain, representing the Oregon Petroleum Association; and Chris Girard, representing Plaid Pantries Inc.

The referral threat comes after months of public forums on the plan, including repeated town hall meetings held around the city.

Although Adams said he believes the numerous gatherings gave the public ample opportunity to comment on the proposal, Romain scoffed at them.

'Those kinds of meetings don't gauge public opinion,' he said. 'They ask people to comment on a preselected range of options, not on whether the city should look for other solutions.'

Adams publicly began looking for additional street money early last year. At the time, he said Portland is facing a growing crisis - a backlog of $422 million in unmet street maintenance costs that was growing by an estimated $9 million a year.

To help develop a proposal, Adams appointed a large 'stakeholder committee' including representatives of business organizations, neighborhood associations, community groups and public agencies.

Over the past year, they reviewed a number of alternatives for raising funds, including a local gas tax and a fee charged to property owners on their city water and sewer bills.

Public took a look

Adams discussed the options in three rounds of public meetings held in June, September and October. The meetings also helped produce a list of projects in each neighborhood that could be funded if the city raises the additional money.

In the end, Adams proposed a monthly fee applied against property intended to raise more than $280 million over 10 years.

As detailed in documents prepared by the Portland Office of Transportation, the fee would amount to $4.54 a month for single-family households and $3.32 for apartments and other multiple-family households.

The fee for commercial properties would be higher, based on a sliding scale that reflects the number of motor vehicle trips they generate. A city-prepared chart shows business fees ranging from $4.24 a month for marine terminals to $875 a month for freestanding superstores.

Adams said the average business fee would be $87 a month, with 82 percent of businesses paying $33 a month.

Those fees are for the first year. After that they automatically would increase by the consumer price index to keep pace with inflation.

Small businesses still wary

Despite the creation of the stakeholder committee and numerous public meetings, Kosesan said many of his members only recently heard of the proposal.

According to Kosesan, when he first called the city about it, he was told that all grocery stores would be charged the same $511 fee, including small convenience stores that generate far less traffic than major stores such as Safeway and Albertson's.

Kosesan said he then contacted Romain, Nelson and Girard, all of whom represent similar businesses. After they complained to the council, Adams met with them and agreed that small stores and service stations should not be charged as much as large grocery stores.

'Engineers say these are 'pass-by' businesses that do not generate as many motor vehicle trips as destinations,' Adams said. 'Basically, people stop by them on their way someplace else.'

After the meeting, Adams said he would drop the fee on the businesses, convenience stores and service stations by more than $370. The smallest stores and stations might end up paying virtually nothing, he added.

Whether Adams has been able to defuse a referral campaign remains to be seen, however. Romain said his organization won't make up its mind until after reviewing the final version of the proposal.

Adams said the final version will be posted at www.commissionersam.com and www.portlandonline.com/transportation by Thursday, at the latest.

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