May 17 election may test voter sentiment for road repairs backed by vehicle fee.

Clackamas County commissioners are floating the possibility of a May 17 advisory vote in advance of any action on a local vehicle registration fee for road repairs.

Chairman John Ludlow, after a discussion Tuesday (Jan. 26), says he’s willing to schedule a more extensive meeting ahead of a February deadline to refer measures on the primary election ballot.

“I think this is an opportunity to feel the pulse of the community to see if there is any opposition or not — and I think there is not,” he said.

Commissioner Tootie Smith raised the possibility of an advisory election, saying that it would focus public attention on a plan for a seven-year, $25-per-year fee that would pay for 47 specific repaving projects and safety improvements around the county. The county itself would get a total of $35 million over the seven years, and cities would split the other $24 million, under a formula set by state law.

“I think not enough of our voters are engaged enough to say we have a good plan,” Smith said.

“We can get public involvement with a hearing. We can have a vote. To me, if we want to continue outreach and education, put on an advisory vote on the May ballot, and then in November, we come back with the true vote (on a fee).”

The commissioners already have taken steps toward referring a $58.7 million bond issue for replacement of an emergency radio communications system that is 25 years old.

“But we can’t run from things just because somebody else has something on the ballot, or in this case, because we have something on the ballot,” Ludlow said. “We can’t run away from this problem.”

A week ago, commissioners put off any action until June, after officials have had a chance to gauge public reaction to their plan.

The commissioners could impose the fee themselves without an election, but critics could then petition to refer it to voters.

Only Multnomah County has a local vehicle registration fee of $19 annually, which is an add-on to the state fee of $43 that is collected every two years. Local fees have not fared well at the ballot box; voters have defeated them in Clackamas, Washington and Lane counties in the past five years.

Commissioner Jim Bernard said he’s not sold on Smith’s approach.

He said a public hearing is likely to draw only naysayers or those willing to commend the commissioners for seeking comments, but less willing to be advocates.

“I think that with an advisory vote, I know it would be no, and then we’re pretty much stuck and don’t get anywhere,” said Bernard, who had a similar experience when he was mayor of Milwaukie.

“We don’t have that option. I think we need to take a leadership role.”

While Bernard was Milwaukie mayor in 2007, the council imposed a 2-cents-per-gallon city gasoline tax without a public vote as part of a three-pronged plan to raise money for street work. (Local fuel taxes now require voter approval.)

But Commissioner Paul Savas said an advisory vote might serve a useful purpose.

In back-to-back telephone surveys in 2014 and 2015, the share of those who said county roads were in good or excellent condition remained relatively constant at 71 percent in 2014 and 70 percent in 2015.

During this same period, county officials have warned there is a widening gap in the money available for road maintenance.

“An advisory vote would get the message out that we’ve got a problem with our roads, so we don’t get survey (results) back like that,” Savas said.

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