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Board OKs advisory vote on roads

Clackamas County commissioners will use May 17 results to craft a specific funding proposal for the November general election

REVIEW FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Most of the proceeds from a county vehicle registration fee or fuel tax would be earmarked for up to 47 specific repaving projects around Clackamas County. More than half of the county's 1,400-mile network of roads are in fair or poor condition, officials say. Voters will get a chance in May to tell Clackamas County commissioners whether they should pursue new sources of funding to maintain the county’s 1,400-mile network of roads.

If voters say yes to the advisory question May 17, they can expect the commissioners to return in the Nov. 8 general election with a specific proposal — perhaps a local vehicle registration fee or fuel tax — to raise money for a fixed number of years.

The commissioners would have until September to decide on what the actual money measure would be.

The advisory question, which commissioners decided last week, is: “Shall the county pursue voter-approved funding, for a limited number of years, for deferred road maintenance?”

Although some commissioners preferred multiple questions — and Commissioner Jim Bernard had advocated simply putting up a money measure in November — the final tally was 4-0. Commissioner Martha Schrader was at a National Association of Counties conference in Washington, D.C., and did not vote.

Commissioner Paul Savas said the May vote is an opportunity for county officials to inform the public that more than half (54 percent) of county roads are rated in fair or poor condition — and that the gap between available money and projected needs is growing wider every year. (Clackamas County faces a $17 million annual gap in road maintenance and a price tag of $265 million to bring all roads to good or excellent condition, according to Barbara Cartmill, the county’s director of transportation and development.)

But Savas also said the advisory measure should not get too specific about how the county should raise more money.

“We made a commitment that we are going to do more outreach and factor in what we hear from the citizens from now until September and not predetermine something,” he said.

“Though we have expressed that perhaps we are leaning toward a vehicle registration fee of a certain amount — and I support that leaning — I think to be genuine to everything that we have said so far... we should do outreach to get a better sense of what people are willing to support.”

An earlier version of the advisory question would have mentioned the possibility of a local vehicle registration fee as a source of money, but without a specific amount. Bernard said he would have preferred that version as a more precise test of public sentiment, instead of “voter-approved funding.”

“That question does not give them anything to get behind,” Bernard said. “I think we should identify specifically what the mechanism is.”

The most commonly mentioned sources are a local vehicle registration fee, proceeds from which would have to be shared with cities, and a local fuel tax that would go only to the county.

Chairman John Ludlow once floated a plan that would have combined a $5 annual fee and a 3-cents-per-gallon tax. But Ludlow said if the advisory question passes May 17, commissioners are going to have to propose just one source for voter consideration Nov. 8, based on polling and other public comments.

“I am not willing to go out for two things,” he said. “We are going to have to decide on one.”

Ludlow, Savas and Commissioner Tootie Smith did reinsert “voter-approved funding” into the ballot title for the advisory measure.

All of them have said that any funding would be for a fixed period — five to seven years — subject to voter renewal. They say most of the money would be earmarked for up to 47 specific repaving projects around the county.

That seemed to satisfy Ron Le Blanc of Lake Oswego, chairman of the Clackamas County Republican Central Committee, which expressed its opposition Feb. 18 to the proposed advisory vote. His earlier comments drew sharp rebukes from Ludlow, Savas and Smith, who are registered Republicans, although county commissioner positions are elected on a nonpartisan basis.

After the county party’s executive committee met Feb. 24, Le Blanc said the party would take no stand on an advisory vote “so long as any tax or fee to be implemented goes to a vote of the people in November with a plan for how the money will be spent and includes a sunset.”

Officials have talked about a local vehicle registration fee of $25 annually, in addition to the current statewide fee of $43 annually. Registration fees are collected every two years upon renewal by the state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division.

Under state law, a county would get 60 percent and cities 40 percent of proceeds under a local vehicle registration fee. According to county estimates, a seven-year fee would generate $5 million for the county and $3 million for cities.

Only Multnomah County has such a local fee now; commissioners there imposed the $19 fee to help pay for the new Sellwood Bridge. Voters in several counties, including Clackamas County in 1997 and 2011 and Washington County in 2014, have rejected fees.

An alternative is a tax on gasoline, in addition to the current state tax of 30 cents per gallon. Multnomah and Washington counties have such taxes, as do 14 cities, including Canby and Milwaukie. Under a 2009 state law, voter approval is required for new or increased local fuel taxes.

Proceeds from a county fuel tax would not have to be shared with cities. If Clackamas County were to do so in proportion to what a local registration fee would raise, however, county officials said such a tax would have to be 6 cents per gallon.

Steve Schopp of Tualatin criticized the lack of multiple advisory questions that would have given voters more choices.

“If you do not have enough information, you will stumble like Washington County did” in its failed attempt at a $30 registration fee in 2014, he said.

Contact Peter Wong at 503-580-0266 or pwong@ PamplinMedia.com.