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Gas tax heads for Troutdale ballot

Troutdale residents will have the opportunity to vote on a fuel tax come November, following months of City Council discussion and public outreach.

“Troutdale doesn’t have enough money to maintain its streets, and you’re not alone,” said Clark Worth, president of Barney and Worth, the consulting agency hired by the city to evaluate public opinion on street maintenance funding. “The discrepancy between state funding and needs is approaching $500,000 a year.”

At the start of the July 14 meeting, council had a 5 cent tax before them, but what followed scrambling and rapid reworking was a 3 cent tax, phased in one penny at a time over the next three years.

The city also had hoped the Legislature would increase the state gas tax or pass a transportation funding package. Neither occurred.

The good news from Barney and Worth, is that as long as the revenue raised from the tax goes to maintain Troutdale’s streets, its residents are largely supportive of that decision.

“We found very little pushback on the 5 cent rate here. For the average motorist, $3 a month is not a big budget breaker in most households,” Worth said. “The bottom line here is that taxes make up a relatively small portion of gas prices.”

Some members of the public believed the tax would be added onto the price per gallon seen at the pumps, but data gathered by Barney and Worth prove that is not true.

“There’s no relationship between a gas tax and the price gasoline is sold for. The idea that gas taxes are immediately going to drive up fuel pump prices 5 cents, it isn’t going to happen that way,” Worth said. “Based on experiences of other cities, you cannot predict that will be the effect.”

Eugene, for example, has a 5 cent gas tax, yet the fuel prices are lower than Cottage Grove, which only has a 3 cent tax.

Viewing this data appeared to be comforting to the councilors, but the three gas station owners who testified disagreed with the assumption that gas prices would be largely unaffected for the consumer.

Jerry Brawley, who owns a Chevron on Northwest Frontage Road, said he’s a relatively small player in the industry, but he estimates a significant loss in volume.

“I think the truck stops are going to be hit worse than me,” Brawley said. “We’re guessing we’ll lose 20 to 30 percent of our business because we won’t be competitive.”

Council largely agreed this tax — if approved by voters — could impact businesses, but that it was necessary.

“They might be able to keep the same price and the customers who buy gas might not notice a difference, but the businesses will notice because they have to make it up,” said Councilor David Ripma. “That is very troubling.”

Councilor Larry Morgan said it’s unfair they have to deal with the issue because the Legislature didn’t act, but for him, the issue is about leadership.

“This is not an easy thing to do, having a fuel tax,” Morgan said. “For us to maintain or even be consistent with where we’re at right now, we have to do something. Leadership sometimes is doing the right thing, which is also the hard thing.”

Ballot initiative

With 2016 already being touted as the “Year of the Ballot Initiative,” Barney and Worth encouraged Troutdale to place its measure on the November 2015 ballot.

The measure will explain the need for the gas tax, as well as what the revenue will be used for, but it also will include an accountability measure.

“One of (the public’s) top questions is, ‘How will the money be spent?’ Even when they know state law requires the money only be spent on maintenance and roads, they want to be assured that that is actually what is going to happen,” said Libby Barg, of Barney and Worth. “So we’re recommending a public accountability system, to track gas tax revenue and program expenditures.”

The council chose to include that element in the measure as well.

If approved by voters, the fuel tax will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2016.