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Street fee sunset may not sway opponents

Council delays vote; polls shows support for opposition initiative

A sunset clause being added to the proposed street fee may please city Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but it’s not enough to derail the petition drive planned by opponents to put it on the ballot.

Mayor Charlie Hales and city Commissioner Steve Novick have agreed the street fee should expire after six years unless renewed by the City Council. Fritz, the supposed third vote to enact the fee without referring it to the voters, said she favored the provision during the Nov. 20 council hearing on it.

The change will require the final vote to be pushed back a week until Dec. 10. But even though it might finally be enough to win Fritz’s support, it won’t stop opponents from trying to refer it to Portland voters.

“It doesn’t make any difference. We believe that people overwhelmingly want to vote on it,” says lobbyist Paul Romain, who is helping organize and fund the potential referral drive. His clients include the Oregon Fuels Association, which represents fuel and heating oil distributors, retailers and marketers.

Another opponent, small-business owner Ann Sanderson, also says the sunset clause hasn’t changed her mind. “While a real sunset with a true end date — and we don’t really know yet if it’s even a real sunset and not just a toothless imposter — would be a move in the right direction, it certainly doesn’t fix the flaws in these new tax schemes enough to gain public support. But if the Mayor and Commissioner think that this improves their proposal enough to gain public approval, then they shouldn’t be afraid of letting the voters weigh in on election day,” says Sanderson, who owns the Odango Hair Studio and runs the Stop Portland Street Fee Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Stoppdxstreetfee.

Public wants a say

Hales and Novick are insisting the council approve the fee without putting it on the ballot. They have changed their proposal completely since it was first introduced in May to address public criticisms. It now includes two ordinances. One creates a progressive personal income tax as the residential portion. The other creates a sliding scale for businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations as the non-residential portion.

A recent poll found that the vast majority of Portlanders want to vote on the income tax portion, however. According to the poll, 77 percent of voter believe the city creation of a new city personal income tax to pay for street maintenance and safety should be approved by voters before it is implemented.

The poll among Portland-area voters was conducted by Moore Information. It was commissioned by employers and associations, and coordinated by the Portland Business Alliance. The phone poll of 400 voting age Portlanders was conducted on Nov. 22 and 23.

But Novick believes the result would be the same, regardless of the revenue source. “I’m 100 percent certain that you’d get the same poll result no matter which revenue mechanism you were talking about,” Novick says.

The proposal has its supporters, however. Several advocates for the elderly, the environment, and low-income Portlanders testified they are prepared to campaign for it at the Nov. 20 hearing. The organizations include AARP, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Coalition for a Livable Future and OPAL Environmental Justice.

Renamed the Portland Street Fund, the revised proposal is intended to raise $46 million a year for maintenance and safety projects, minus administrative costs. Fifty-eight percent of the available funds will be spent on maintenance and 42 percent will be spent on safety improvements.

The council will take public testimony on two proposed amendments on Dec. 3. One is the sunset clause. The other is a guarantee that funding for pavement maintenance from non-fund sources will not drop below current levels if the fee is approved. This will ensure that passage of the fee will more than double the annual pavement maintenance budget from current levels.

If the council then approves the fee without placing it on the ballot, opponents will have 30 days to collect signatures from 20,897 registered Portland voters for each one of them — a total of 41,794 valid signatures. If enough valid signatures are collected and submitted to city elections officials, the proposal will not take effect unless it is approved by the voters.

Novick says most Portlanders understand the city needs new revenue to fix the streets, even though they might favor one source over another.

“We also know that about 67 percent of Portlanders understand that we need more money for transportation. And that it is hard to get consensus on how to raise the money. Generally, though, people tend to assume that everyone else would support whatever they’d support. So people who want a gas tax say, ‘yes, let’s have a vote, and what you should really do is have a vote on a gas tax, and I bet everyone will join me in voting for it.’ But in fact it would be pretty tough to get a majority for the gas tax. So it doesn’t surprise me that people want to vote — but I think many people assume that a vote would result in their preferred alternative passing, because they assume more consensus than there is,” Novick says.

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