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City split could keep street fee off ballot

Business groups still deciding to refer plan to voters


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - A monthly city fee to repair and improve local streets could run into problems with business groups that want to refer the proposed transportation user fee to voters this fall.Opponents of a proposed city street fee will have a hard time repealing it — at least all of it — if the City Council sticks to its current schedule.

A majority of the council does not want to refer the fee voters for approval. They include Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioners Steve Novick and Amanda Fritz. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman believe it should be placed on the ballot.

The council made it harder for that to happen at last Thursday’s public hearing on the fee. It split the residential fee from the fee on businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations, including schools and churches. Hales, Novick and Fritz appear poised to vote for the residential fee Wednesday.

But the council also agreed to take until Nov. 14 to develop and approve a new fee schedule for businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations. Novick said the delay was necessary to address the concerns of small businesses, who felt the original proposal hit them too hard.

“We want to take the rest of the summer to get the business fee right,” says Dana Haynes, Hales’ spokesman.

But Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocers Association, is confused about the council’s motives. The NWGA is one of several business organizations that has suggested it will refer the fee to ballot if it does not like the final version.

“No one talked to us about splitting the fees in advance. It looks like the council is playing games to prevent it from being referred to the voters,” says Gilliam, adding that he is in discussions with leaders of other business organizations to figure out the next move.

The split will make it hard for opponents of the residential fee to refer it to the ballot, however. Although several homeowners and renters angrily criticized the fee at the May 30 hearing, there is no organized opposition to the residential fee at this time. That will make it hard to collect the nearly 20,000 voter signatures necessary to refer it to the ballot within 30 days of the council vote, as required by election law.

In contrast, organizations like the grocers association and the Portland Business Alliance have the money and organization to support a 30-day petition drive. They have also expressed a willingness to support the fee, however, if they believe it is fair and will address key transportation leads, like the poor maintenance of city streets.

“We’ve asked for a list of which projects the fee will fund and haven’t seen it yet,” says Gilliam.

Both fees are scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2015. It is unclear how much they would raise at this point. The original proposal was estimated to raise between $40 million and $50 million a year. But that was when the residential fee was set at $11.56 a month. At Thursday’s hearing, the council accepted an amendment from Fritz to set it at $6 a month for the first year, $9 a month for the second year and $12 a month after that. There would also be low-income

discounts.

And, of course, the fee to be assessed against businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations is still being crafted.

The transportation user fee would spent on maintenance, safety, pedestrian, bicycle, mass transit and other transportation-related projects. The council is scheduled to consider asking voters to approve a City Charter amendment restricting the funds raised by the fee to transportation purpose at the November general election.