Three rebut GOP county chairman, but two Democrats agree in ironic twist.

A majority of Clackamas County commissioners stand behind an effort to ask voters May 17 whether they should pursue new funding sources to pay for road upkeep.

They did so even as the county chairman of the Republican Party urged them not to conduct an advisory vote — although three commissioners, all registered Republicans, have pledged to do so.

Chairman John Ludlow and Commissioners Tootie Smith and Paul Savas all responded to the comments by Ron Le Blanc of Lake Oswego. Commissioners Jim Bernard and Martha Schrader, both registered Democrats, agreed with Le Blanc in an ironic twist.

The five commissioners, all elected on a nonpartisan basis, will decide the final form of one or more ballot questions at their business meeting Thursday (Feb. 25).

Le Blanc said the party central committee is taking no stand on potential sources such as a countywide fuel tax — which under state law requires voter approval — or a local vehicle registration fee whose proceeds would have to be shared with cities.

“Heaven forbid — and I hope I don’t see it coming from this board of commissioners — but can you imagine the board using the results of an advisory vote and claiming the public has already spoken at the ballot box?” Le Blanc said at a board meeting last week (Feb. 18).

“That would give the board carte blanche to create a measure any way they want to do it and not have to bring it back to the voters…

“If the board wants to create a vehicle registration fee and/or gas tax, propose your bill, hold public testimony, and draft your bill that would be fair for all. Then send the completed bill to voters at the ballot box. Don’t send a questionnaire.”

So far the advisory question a majority of commissioners want to put on the May 17 ballot reads: “Shall the county pursue voter-approved funding for deferred road maintenance and safety improvements on the November 2016 ballot?”

“The majority of this board has said we will put something forth in November,” Ludlow said. “I am a little bit offended by you saying we are going to slip something by despite what the voters may say.”

Smith was ever harsher.

“If you are claiming that somehow we are going to manipulate data and cheat the public, I am severely offended by you — as well as you know me — that (you say) we would do that,” she said.

Multiple choice?

Ludlow and Smith are hoping for multiple advisory questions, which would gauge voter sentiment for a countywide fuel tax or a registration fee that could go onto the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

Multnomah and Washington counties have local fuel taxes in addition to the state tax of 30 cents per gallon, as do 14 cities, including Canby and Milwaukie. A 2009 change in state law requires voter approval for new or increased local fuel taxes.

Only Multnomah County has a local vehicle registration fee ($19) in addition to the state’s annual fee of $43, which is collected every two years. Voters have rejected such fees elsewhere, including Clackamas and Washington counties; Multnomah County commissioners approved their fee without an election.

Ludlow has floated a $5 annual vehicle fee and a 3-cent fuel tax as an alternative to a $25 annual vehicle fee.

The first combination would raise an estimated $32 million over five years, and the second plan $35 million over seven years, to pay for up to 47 specific repaving projects on major arterials and safety improvements.

Although either amount would be far less than the county's projected $17 million annual gap between available funds and needed maintenance, Ludlow said the money would let the county reduce the 54 percent of roads now rated in fair to poor condition. The county no longer gets payments from federal timber sales — federal aid to timber-dependent counties is a fraction of what it once was — and the recent five-year renewal of federal transportation spending provides for only modest increases from current levels.

That renewal does designate Interstate 205 as a corridor of national significance, which might secure federal funds for widening the six miles between Stafford Road and the George Abernethy Bridge.

“I think this (advisory vote) has a good chance of passing,” Smith said. “I want to know how people want to pay for it — and how much they want to pay.”

The public discussion did draw comments from Jose Hernandez of Milwaukie, who favored a fuel tax over a vehicle registration fee, and Jo Haverkamp of Oregon City, who had the opposite view.

Differing views

Unlike Ludlow and Smith, Savas has said he prefers a single question on the ballot to draw public attention to a general need for more money for road work.

“People still think there is not a problem with our roads,” he said in reference to 2014 and 2015 surveys that peg satisfaction at 70 percent.

Savas said voters could easily get confused with multiple ballot questions.

In an ironic twist, the two county commissioners who are registered Democrats said they agreed with Le Blanc that the commissioners should not call for an advisory vote.

“I think we should not use the ballot box as a polling tool,” Bernard said.

“My concern is that if we vote yes, what does it mean? If the voters say no, that means it’s all over — and if we try again, they will say ‘hell, no.’”

Bernard was mayor of Milwaukie when the city council approved a local fuel tax without an election back in 2007. He has said commissioners should craft a specific proposal with public involvement and then take it to voters.

Schrader said she favors a similar course of action.

“But if it gives commissioners some comfort to do this (advisory vote), I am willing to go along to get along,” she said.

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