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Support parks another five years

Portland-area residents have made it clear how much they value the forests, hills and wetlands that surround cities in this region. Now it’s time for their elected leaders to show voters a long-term plan to care for these natural areas.

On three occasions already, voters have approved tax measures that allowed the Metro regional government to purchase and maintain thousands of acres of open space. These acquisitions have included lands stretching from the East Buttes in Gresham to Chehalem Ridge near Forest Grove, with dozens of parcels in between.

This fall, metro-area voters are being asked to renew a five-year levy to maintain and provide greater public access to Metro’s 17,000 acres of parkland and natural areas. At 9.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, the levy is cheap. It will cost the typical homeowner less than $2 per month, which is the same as the 2013 levy it would replace.

Measure 26-178 would provide up to $14 million a year for Metro to continue its work of maintaining and restoring habitat areas, and also opening up the lands it has purchased for people to enjoy. Roughly half the money would go toward conservation and protection of fish, wildlife and water quality, while the other half would help “connect people with nature.” Those are worthwhile causes, and we support renewal of this levy.

At the same time, it also has become clear that Metro needs a better long-range plan to pay for everyday maintenance of its vast park and open space holdings. Metro backed into the park business when Multnomah County unloaded its sites — such as Blue Lake and Oxbow parks — on the regional government in the 1990s. The agency then went on a buying spree — to preserve open spaces from future development — with passage of a bond measure in 1995 and another in 2006.

Those bonds led to the purchase of more than 13,700 acres of additional land. Metro now has more property than it can manage without going to the voters every few years for money.

It may be that a dedicated levy will be needed for some time to come, but Metro must look beyond the property tax system for more equitable ways to pay for its parks and open space programs. User fees — similar to those charged by the U.S. Forest Service and regional park districts — could be one funding mechanism for supplementing what taxpayers are contributing.

As it stands now, Metro is like the person who bought a big house but can’t afford the upkeep. Before it comes back to voters — presumably in three to five years — Metro needs to have a better-formulated strategy for taking care of the assets it owns in perpetuity. In the meantime, voters should provide the short-term funding needed by approving Measure 26-178 and then demanding an improved plan before Metro comes back again asking for money.