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Troutdale to evaluate local gas tax option

With gas prices the lowest since 2008, the Troutdale City Council indicates now may be the time to consider a local gas tax to increase revenue for street maintenance.

“I think our roads and streets ... are often taken for granted,” said Public Works Director Steve Gaschler. “If we don’t maintain streets you know what happens: They deteriorate, and we end up spending a lot more down the road.”

Gaschler noted there’s only between two and three more years of maintenance funding left — without action — before the preservation program dries up.

“We can talk about this for many years and we keep getting the same story,” said Mayor Doug Daoust. “We’re going to have to do something.”

That something will likely include a public outreach initiative, evaluating what the citizens prefer to increase revenue. At a Jan. 13, work session, city councilors directed staff to draft a consent item for the Jan. 27 meeting. Once approved, consulting agency Barney and Worth would be allowed to initiate the public outreach phase of a three-phase plan.

Councilors were concerned with the cost of contracting with Barney and Worth, estimated at $70,000 for the entire project, but ultimately decided the cost was worth the potential benefit.

“I don’t know if we have a choice,” Gaschler said of the decision. “We don’t currently have the staff, the expertise, or the time in house to do something like this. I don’t see us putting a successful campaign together based on what I know we have.”

The campaign would start with public education on the three potential methods for raising revenue dedicated to street maintenance: a utility fee, increased vehicle registration fees and a local gas tax.

Clark Worth, Barney and Worth vice president, said a utility fee is most common in Oregon, as it can be approved by a city council. Vehicle registration fees are managed at the county level, meaning Troutdale couldn’t implement an increase at the local level. A gas tax seemed to be the favored idea by the council, but requires voter approval — hence the public outreach initiative.

Stationary tax

Oregon was the first state to implement a gas tax in 1919, but it is not often raised. The state gas tax rests at 30 cents a gallon, relatively low compared to neighboring states. Washington, for example, has a state gas tax of 37.5 cents per gallon. There’s also the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon. Oregon’s tax only recently increased in 2011. It had been the same rate since 1993. The federal tax also has not increased since 1993.

“If I was a local official and wanted to maintain my roads, I would be looking at a local tax I had control over,” Worth said.

Troutdale may consider a local tax of 1, 3 or 5 cents a gallon. This would amount to an average increase of $1.60 a month per driver.

“It’s not a bad time to do it right now because the price of gas is low,” Daoust said. “If you look at the timing of when to consider or ask the public if they’d be willing to spend $1.60 a month more, especially with most of our gasoline (sells to) pass-through people. Most of (gas sales) are not from citizens of Troutdale.”

While all councillors agreed something needed to be done to maintain the streets, a few thought waiting to see what the Oregon Legislature might do is a better option.

“It appears the state is going to implement their own gas tax,” said Councilor Glenn White. “It definitely changes the direction, at least for me it does.”

Worth, however, doesn’t believe the Legislature would handle the state gas tax this session.

“I believe there is no chance the legislature is going to enact it,” Worth said. “They’re definitely looking at something longer term. Even though prices are certainly looking very good right now, they’re invested in this longer term idea of changing off the gas tax.”

Many policy makers believe revenues from the gas taxes are down because less people are driving, he noted.

“Revenues are flat because the gas tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years.”

Public outreach initiative

Once approved, Barney and Worth will survey Troutdale voters.

“We find out right away if this is going to be a possibility,” Worth said. “If the voters can think their way through this. If they see the benefits to this. If they see advantage to this investment they have to make. We have to appeal to likely voters. We have to convince them, yes.”

The potential has tax could be on a ballot as early as May for local voters.

“We owe it to the citizens to know what the citizens want,” said Councilor Larry Morgan. “If it’s going to be successful, we know what the next steps are. It’s to me a common sense thing to do.”

Worth emphasized the time to make a decision is now, with the Public Works Department rating the condition of Troutdale streets at 70 percent.

“We’ve driven Troutdale streets. Your streets are great,” Morgan said. “The fact that you’ve reached this spot where you can make another incremental investment and take care of that for the foreseeable future, a lot of communities would love to be in that place.”

Daoust certainly is glad to be in this position.

“Looking ahead to the future, three or four years from now, where do we want to be?” Daoust said. “I’ll also preach an informed decision because sometimes we make uninformed decisions and I’m very uncomfortable with that. I think it’s worth the investment.”

Because the outreach initiative is in three phases, the council could elect to discontinue the efforts after phase one if public reaction isn’t positive. Phase one would cost a maximum of $30,840 from the street maintenance fund.

“Knowledge is power. I love the idea of having information like this,” said Councilor Eric Anderson. “It’s our choice whether we act on it or not, but I would hate to be in the position to act and we didn’t have the knowledge.”

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