Commissioner hasn't changed his mind on public street plan vote

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO JAIME VALDEZ - Commissioner Steve Novick explained the need for more street maintenance money Monday, but doesnt think it needs to go on the ballot.Throughout the debate on the proposed Portland street fee, some of the loudest voices have insisted that the City Council should refer it to the voters for approval.

Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick are crafting a fee to raise around $50 million a year — primarily for street maintenance and transportation projects. It would be evenly split between residential and non-residential properties.

Although Hales has repeatedly said the council should make the “tough decision” itself, Novick, who is charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, has even said voters could throw the two of them out of office in 2015 if they don’t like that decision.

In fact, this is not the first time Novick has said voters don’t need to vote on tax measures. In 2000, he worked against a statewide ballot measure by conservative activist Bill Sizemore that would have required public votes on virtually every fee and tax increase proposed by local and state governments. Measure 93 was defeated at that fall’s general election 856,091 votes to 581,186. The vote was even more lopsided in Multnomah County — 181,978 to 96,742.

When the measure qualified for the ballot, Novick was the sole employee of the Center for Constructive Citizen Action. A lawyer, he helped challenge ballot titles prepared for numerous measures backed by Sizemore and other conservative activists.

Once Measure 93 made it on the ballot, Novick was paid part-time to work against it by the Committee for Our Oregon, a political action committee largely funded by public employee unions.

According to Novick, most of his work involved demonstrating how the measure could devastate local governments — including library and other small districts — by requiring almost all of their fee and tax proposals to be approved by a two-thirds supermajority of their voters. He helped research and prepare some of the Voter’s Pamphlet pages and paid advertisements against the measure. They stressed how many minor but essential fees would be subjected to public votes.

“All we were able to do with that was pull together a few Voter’s Pamphlet statements and a radio ad,” says Novick. “We were rather astonished when we won.”

Other cities adopt fees

Novick says he has a different reason for not wanting the street fee referred to the voters. He sees it as funding a necessity that government is obligated to provide. “I think it’s problematic to determine funding for basic public services like transportation through campaigns,” says Novick.

Novick’s views were especially shaped by the closure of the public schools in Cottage Grove in 1976. Novick was in the ninth grade there when the schools closed after voters rejected a property tax levy to fund them.

“After a few months, there was another vote and schools were restored. But it was pretty disturbing that schools could just cease to exist,” says Novick. “With transportation, it’s arguably even more problematic, because people in Cottage Grove could see that there was literally no school; with transportation, it’s not easy to see the gradual disintegration of the streets, and very few people know that the cost of fixing streets goes up dramatically the worse they get.”

Novick also notes there are many fee increases in Portland that do not require voter approval. They include what has become annual increases in water, sewer and stormwater managements fees. In fact, Portland voters rejected a measure on the May 20 primary election ballot that would have taken the authority to set the fees away from the council and given it to an independent public water district.

Novick also notes that 28 other cities in Oregon have already adopted some form of street maintenance fee without seeking voter approval. So has Austin, Texas. The city council in Duluth, Minn., approved a street maintenance fee on July 23 that will raise an estimated $2.8 million a year by charging residents $5 a month on utility bills. Businesses will pay monthly fees on a sliding scale based on size — $20 for small businesses, $90 for medium-sized businesses and $240 for large businesses.

Novick hopes Portlanders will accept the council’s decision if the fee is not placed on the ballot.

“I hope that citizens will ultimately conclude, ‘Well, I’m still not sure I like that fee, but at least they’re spending it as they said they would, and maybe it really was necessary, so I guess I can live with it,’ ” Novick says.

The council is tentatively scheduled to consider the final version of the fee on Nov. 12. In the meantime, three working groups will be appointed to consider such issues as discounts for low-income households and small businesses.

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