Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites


Street fee critics blast last minute changes

Share

The numerous amendments to the proposed street fee are shining a light on an obscure but important City Hall communique known as the Tuesday Memo.

Street fee critics are angry that at City Council hearings, amendments are not handed out until the start of the meeting. Nor have amendments been included in the online council agendas posted by the City Auditor’s Office the Friday before each week’s hearings, which are held on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

When the council considered the most recent amendment last Wednesday, local economist Eric Fruits accused the council of playing “hide and seek” with the public.

“It’s like you’re only going to reveal stuff at the last minute,” Fruits said.

Small business owner Ann Sanderson complained she didn’t have enough time to study the amendment before it was time to testify. She said such disregard for the public process is one reason she is committed to referring the proposal to the ballot if the council ever passes it.

In fact, the amendment had been distributed Tuesday afternoon — but only to those people on a little-known email list maintained by the City Auditor’s Office. For years, those on the list have received a weekly Tuesday update that includes all revisions to the agendas. The email memo includes such information as which council members will be absent, which items have been pulled or rescheduled, when hearings are expected to start on numerous items, and which upcoming hearings have been canceled for lack of a quorum.

The memo also includes all amendments as attachments.

Only people who have requested to be on the email list receive the memo. The list currently includes some, but not all, city employees, some, but not all, members of the press, and a number of citizens.

Told of the memo by the Portland Tribune, Sanderson expressed amazement. No one ever told her she needed to sign up to receive the street fee amendments in advance, even though she has been following the street fee since it was first proposed in May and served on one of the work groups that helped develop the current proposal.

“Don’t you think having to be on a special email list to get information is a poor way to do democracy? I am always impressed by the wide variety of people who take time out of their day to come down and testify in front of council on all kinds of issues. Should they all have to be on a special email list to get what should be readily accessible information?” Sanderson asks.

Fruits says he hadn’t heard of the memo, either, even though he frequently testifies on issues before the council.

Next steps unclear

Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick proposed the street fee to raise $46 million a year for maintenance and safety projects, after administrative expenses. The proposal includes a progressive personal income tax and a sliding scale for businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations. The current version was first considered by the council on Oct. 13, and the final vote originally was scheduled for Nov. 13. It has been delayed repeatedly to consider amendments submitted by Novick to address issues raised at the hearings or by people who have contacted Novick directly.

The amendments have caused delays because each one requires the final vote be postponed at least one week. Under council rules, all new measures must receive a public hearing and cannot be scheduled for a vote until the next week, at the earliest. Exceptions include noncontroversial items on the council’s Consent Agenda and items with emergency clauses that take effect immediately, but those conditions don’t apply to the street fee.

It is unclear what amendments will be included in this week’s Tuesday Memo. At last week’s hearing, the council accepted an amendment that creates exceptions for very micro businesses, defined as those that gross less than $50,000 a year. Those based in homes will be exempt from the nonresidential portion of the fee. Those based outside homes will only be charged $3 a month.

During the hearing, Commissioner Nick Fish expressed interested in exempting some or all new businesses from the fee during their first year. He said that is when businesses struggle the hardest to stay afloat. Fish did not say he would introduce such an amendment, however.

Novick also has said he believes people who work in Portland but live outside the city can be subjected to the progressive income tax. He is considering asking the city Revenue Bureau to study the question and says he does not yet know whether it would require an additional amendment.

“My personal inclination, if we can do it, would be to base it on statistics about what percentage of commuters’ road use is in their work city as opposed to their home city. So, say, if commuting is 40 percent of the driving most people do, the fee should be 40 percent of the resident fee. I actually don’t know the real figures,” Novick says.

Neighborhood leaders in Southeast Portland have repeatedly charged that the tables for the business fees let many large transportation users off the hook, including trucking companies. Southeast Uplift, the coalition office representing 20 inner Southeast neighborhoods, has filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court to compel the Portland Bureau of Transportation to release internal documents on the development of the tables. Novick has not yet said whether he thinks this is a problem that requires another amendment to resolve.