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Council delays street fee vote yet again


Photo Credit: CITY OF PORTLAND - Commissioner Steve Novick will propose more street fee changes Wednesday.Dueling polls suggest how the campaigns over the proposed street fee will be waged — if the City Council ever approves it and opponents refer it to the ballot.

A poll released last week says most Portlanders are against the proposal by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick. It was commissioned by the Oregon Small Business Association and found that 63 percent of Portland voters oppose the street fee. Only 26 percent support it, and 11 percent are undecided.

But that result is different than a poll conducted for the city in June, when the current proposal was still being written. That poll found many Portlanders support taxing the wealthy Portlanders for streets — with 60 percent in favor of taxing those earning more than $125,000.

The two polls did not ask the same questions, however, and the differences likely will be exploited by each side if the proposal is referred to the voters.

The city poll, which was conducted by DHM Research, asked Portlanders what they would support “to fund repairs and improvements to the city of Portland’s transportation infrastructure, primarily maintenance and safety.” That emphasizes how the money would be spent, which is 58 percent for maintenance and 42 percent for safety projects, after expenses.

The new poll, which was conducted by Riley Research, said the proposal was intended “to provide additional revenue for the city’s transportation department.” That emphasizes the bureaucracy — the Portland Bureau of Transportation — that will receive the net proceeds.

The Riley poll also mentioned the progressive nature of the personal income tax, but not by saying the wealthy will pay more. Instead, it noted people will pay different amounts, saying, “an individual’s tax could vary from a low of nothing to a high of $900, depending on the individual or household annual income.”

So if the measure goes to the ballot, expect supporters to argue that richer Portlanders pay more and the money will be spend on maintenance and safety projects. Opponents are likely to say not everyone pays their fair share, and the money goes to fill city coffers.

Both sides gearing up

Novick thinks his side has the winning argument.

“Of course, people aren’t going to support additional money for a ‘transportation department.’ They will support funding for street maintenance and safety. Our polls showed that between 50 and 60 percent of Portlanders will support a progressive income tax for maintenance and safety,” Novick says.

At the same time, the Riley poll found voters of all ages oppose what it called “this new personal income and business tax.” Opposition ranged from a plurality of 18 to 34 year olds (47 percent no, 34 percent yes) to 72 percent of those age 55 to 64.

Whether Portlanders get to vote on the proposal remains to be seen. Hales and Novick are insisting the council not refer it to the ballot, and they are looking for a third vote that agrees. Opponents are screening professional signature collection firms to launch a referral drive.

If the council approves the proposal without referring it to the ballot, opponents would have 30 days to collect signatures from 20,897 registered Portland voters for each ordinance — a total of 41,794 valid signatures. If enough valid signatures are verified by election officials, the proposal will not take effect unless it is approved by the voters.

Street fee keeps changing

At last Wednesday’s hearing, the council once again postponed the final vote on the street fee. It originally had been set for Dec. 3, but was delayed until Dec. 10 to consider amendments. Novick then said he will offer at least another amendment at that hearing, requiring another one week delay under council rules.

Several opponents testified the recurring delays mean Hales and Novick should withdraw the proposal and start over. Small business owner Ann Sanderson said problems plague both parts of the fee, the progressive personal income tax and the sliding scale for nonresidential properties.

“Both taxes, two of them, aren’t ready for prime time,” said Sanderson, who operates the Stop Portland Street Fee Facebook page.

Last Wednesday’s hearing was relatively tame compared to the previous hearings on the street fee, which have gone on for hours. In contrast, only a handful of people spoke at the Dec. 3 hearing, mostly against it. The back-and-forth with the council revealed a number of new, unresolved issues, however.

One is whether people who work in Portland but live outside the city can be taxed. Novick said the possibility will be studied by the city Revenue Bureau, which will collect the taxes and fees.

Perhaps the most complicated issue was raised by Robert McCollough, president of Southeast Uplift, the neighborhood coalition office representing 17 Southeast neighborhoods. He said the city’s calculation for the business fees are inaccurate and let some of the heaviest street users off the hook, including major transportation companies. McCollough said the city does not have a classification for some of those companies, and he accused PBOT officials of stonewalling his requests for the “working papers” used to set the fees. McCollough said SEUL had authorized a public records lawsuit to obtain the documents, although he hoped the council would direct PBOT to simply turn them over.

Other issues discussed by the council concerned how to minimize the impact of the nonresidential fees on small businesses. Novick said he would present an amendment on Dec. 10 to exempt “microbusinesses” owned by city residents from the fee. Commissioner Nick Fish said he was interested in exempting small businesses from the first year of the fee.

The hearing ended with the council approving two amendments. One was a sunset clause that would repeal the two ordinances in six years unless they are renewed by the council. Commissioner Amanda Fritz had expressed support of it at the Nov. 20 hearing, and she is considered the likely third vote.

The other amendment would ensure that any new maintenance revenue would be in addition to the amount the city currently is spending, which is $11.3 million in the 2014-15 budget. Novick said the amendment was necessary to assure Portlanders the council wouldn’t simply use any new street fee funds to replace money it is already spending on maintenance.

Fish expressed frustration with the changing schedule, asking Novick point blank when the final vote will take place.

“At a certain point we have to be more respectful of people’s time,” Fish said.

Novick answered, “December 17.”