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Time to bring Robin Hood to the Grove?

Wealthier cities in Washington County have an interest in helping out

Several weeks ago, I attended Forest Grove's Annual Town Meeting. After a review of local services, the focus of the session was how big an operating bond levy should the city council put before the voters for a May vote.

The audience was given three options: standing pat with the current tax rate of $1.35 per $1,000 assessed valuation or moving to $1.60 or $1.85.

Sentiment was close, but the $1.85 increase got a majority. Anything less would barely cover current expenses, if that. So why not go for the enlarged levy in order to protect existing services, avoid cuts and maybe improve on service delivery? Interestingly enough, the council has now approved the $1.60 option and is moving ahead to a May vote.

As last week's News-Times put it:

'Caught between a desire to fully fund city services and the need to respect the hardships faced by many taxpayers, the Forest Grove City Council compromised Monday night. As city leaders pondered how much to ask for when putting an operating levy before voters, many activists have lobbied for a rate of $1.85 per $1,000 of assessed value.

But with a current rate of $1.35, that 50-cent jump was a bit much for a majority of the council, which, in a 6-1 vote, settled on a rate of $1.60 for the May ballot.'

I don't want to second guess the city council for taking the middle ground approach - a Solomon-like decision which will tick off the 'no new taxes' crowd while making the 'pro services' folks scratch their heads wondering if the Town Meeting was purely academic.

More importantly, what happens if the levy fails in May's 'low turnout' election? What's the fall back position - the current levy of $1.35?

City governments in Oregon play guessing games over the local economy and the temper of the local voters about how low or high local services should be. Generally, the politics of lowered expectations wins. It's a good short-run strategy to maintain existing services if you don't pay attention to hidden cuts over time. It's bad strategy if the goal is sustainable services over the long haul.

Let's remind ourselves what services mean in Forest Grove. We are talking about police and fire protection, parks and recreation, utilities and street maintenance and the local library.

So every levy campaign is really a question of what do you want to keep at a current services level, expand or cut back? In this game, police and fire usually win - while other services lose over time.

How would this game work if there was another option - a regional 'equity tax' which, like Robin Hood, took from the rich to pay for the poor? Forest Grove and Cornelius have to scrounge for local support in every levy. Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard by comparison face a less skeptical audience. Why? It's actually simple - the Grove has a smaller, mostly homeowner, tax base while our neighbors to the east have a larger industrial and/or retail base to tax.

It's too bad Washington Square and Tanesbourne aren't within our taxing district boundaries.

If Washington County implemented a local 'equity tax' comparable to the equalization formula used by the state in school funding, a more even playing field would be created to sustain comparable services across the county. Over time, this might incentivize business to locate outside the current Hillsboro/Beaverton/Tigard triangle since services would be comparable locality to locality. If this was applied to school funding additional advantages might accrue as well.

Why should residents of the hi-tech triangle care? Good question. If we want to build sustainable local communities, want smart growth and zones of prosperity and not pockets of poverty, spreading the wealth can help stop urban sprawl, congested highways at peak hours and create communities that are more than bedrooms for those who commute east in Washington County. Will this be controversial? You bet.

Let me add some fuel to this smoldering fire. NIKE stopped Beaverton's attempted annexation of their corporate headquarters just off the Murray Boulevard in a very public and ugly legal political food fight. Wouldn't you love to tap into Phil Knight's corporate largesse to support local services? I know NIKE is a huge Duck supporter that fans in Eugene love, but why not show residents of Washington County some love by paying a fair share of the load?

If we don't start thinking outside the box, again and again communities such as Forest Grove are going to continue to face hard decisions about what services to fund and which to underfund. And again we know who the winners in this game of chicken are - the dudes with the flashing lights and fancy rigs. And I like the excellent services we get from our police and fire first responders. But they don't teach our kids how to read a book, how to swim and to play team sports.

Just for the record, I'll be voting 'yes' in May.

- Russ Dondero is Professor Emeritus, Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.




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