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Clackamas board considers gas tax

Voters may be asked May 17 to weigh in on local option, smaller vehicle fee.

Clackamas County commissioners are now floating a local gasoline tax, plus a smaller local vehicle registration fee, as part of a proposed May 17 advisory vote.

After a discussion Tuesday (Feb. 2), the commissioners will have to decide by the end of the month whether to proceed with asking the questions of voters.

Chairman John Ludlow said that a $5 annual vehicle registration fee, plus a countywide fuel tax of 3 cents per gallon, would raise almost as much money in five years as a $25-per-year vehicle fee would generate in seven years.

“Let people know we are going to be accountable, we are going to do a specific list of projects, and let us prove we can do it – so it would be an easier renewal the next time we go before the voters,” Ludlow said.

A $5 county registration fee would generate about $1 million annually for the county itself; cities would share 40 percent of its proceeds. It would be added on to the state’s annual fee of $43, which is collected every two years upon renewal.

A 3-cent-per-gallon local gasoline tax would generate about $5.3 million for the county, which would not have to share the proceeds with cities.

That package would raise about $32 million for the county over five years, compared with $35 million for the county from a $25 vehicle fee over seven years.

Clackamas County officials already have laid out 47 specific repaving projects for the original $35 million.

State law allows counties to impose a local vehicle registration fee outright — only Multnomah County has done so — or refer it to voters. It has failed at the ballot box in Clackamas, Lane and Washington counties in the past five years.

State law was changed in 2009 to require voter approval for new or increased local gasoline taxes. Two counties (Multnomah and Washington) and 14 cities, including Canby and Milwaukie, have taxes in addition to the state rate of 30 cents per gallon. The Portland City Council has referred a 10-cent increase to voters May 17.

Ludlow said a local gas tax would satisfy critics who say a $25 vehicle fee is too high, and a modest registration fee would draw money from owners of hybrid and electric cars that use little of no gasoline.

Commissioner Jim Bernard was mayor of Milwaukie when the city council approved a 2-cent tax back in 2007.

He was dubious about any kind of advisory vote, although he was willing to proceed outright with a $10 vehicle fee and refer a local gas tax to voters in the Nov. 8 general election.

“I think putting it as an advisory vote is dangerous. They may vote no,” Bernard said. “The approach that has worked for me is engage citizens, show them the package and see what happens.”

Commissioner Martha Schrader voiced a similar opinion.

“My concern is that if it’s a ‘hell, no’ response, then we are dead in the water,” she said. “That would not surprise me in this county right now.”

But Commissioner Tootie Smith, who raised the concept of an advisory vote last week, said having the questions on the primary and general election ballots would raise public awareness of the county’s need for road repair money.

“We need to be honest with our voters about what we are going to ask them for,” she said. “I think voters are not taking us seriously because we haven’t said we are going to do something. I think this is where our opportunity comes.”

Commissioner Paul Savas said county officials should pursue a campaign to inform the public about repair needs for the county’s 1,400 miles of roads.

“But I think there is value in educating via a voters pamphlet statement, because voters do not think there is a problem,” he said.

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