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Clackamas County studies vehicle fee

Seven-year amount would fund specific repaving projects.


Clackamas County commissioners are floating a different approach toward a local vehicle registration fee to pay for road repairs.

Unlike other counties where voters have rejected additions to the $43 annual state fee, Clackamas County is proposing a smaller amount at $25.

The county also is proposing to limit its local fee to seven years, when it would raise $35 million for road work outside cities. The fee also would raise an estimated $24 million to be split among the cities, which would decide how to spend their shares on road work.

The county also would commit most of its share (at $32.3 million) to specific repaving projects, such as Beavercreek Road, in seven packages that cover most of the county. The other $3.7 million would go toward safety improvements.

County officials have laid out cost estimates for the 47 specific projects within the packages.

Commissioners have not yet decided whether to proceed with the fee themselves or refer it to voters in the Nov. 8 general election.

Instead, they decided to wait until June, after county officials embark on an effort to inform the public about what a local fee would buy.

Gary Schmidt, county director of public and government affairs, said a 2014 survey asked only if voters would support particular ways to raise money for road repairs.

“You have made some decisions in the interim that the public is not aware of and that we have not done outreach on,” said Barbara Cartmill, county director of transportation and development.

Commissioner Jim Bernard said, “I need to know that our $150,000 actually creates support.”

Multnomah County is the only one in Oregon that has a local vehicle registration fee. The $19 annual fee was imposed starting in 2010 to pay for a replacement for the 90-year-old Sellwood Bridge. The new bridge is scheduled for completion this year.

Clackamas County voters in 2011 overturned a decision by commissioners to impose a $5 annual fee for the same purpose. Although the bridge is a link with Highway 43 that goes into Clackamas County, critics of the fee said they did not want to pay for a bridge owned by Multnomah County.

But Bernard, who was on the board back then, said several opponents told him they would not object if a local fee were used for Clackamas County projects.

“Safety is No. 1,” Bernard said.

Voters elsewhere have opposed local vehicle registration fees.

Washington County voters rejected a $30 annual fee in November 2014, and Lane County voters trounced a $35 annual fee by a 2-to-1 margin in May 2015.

Chairman John Ludlow, who faces opposition from Bernard and Commissioner Paul Savas for a second term in the May 17 election, has floated another possibility — that the board approve such a fee outright, unanimously, without a referral to voters.

“This should not be couched as a political issue. There’s no debate about this. Our roads are falling apart,” Ludlow said.

“We can educate, we can do outreach, we can do polls. But the bottom line is that if we send this out to voters, it may be in jeopardy no matter what our polls say. Our responsibility, though, remains.”

Commissioners Martha Schrader and Tootie Smith also are seeking new terms in the May election. Bernard and Savas are in the middle of their four-year terms.

Even if the fee is imposed by commissioners or approved by voters, Cartmill said it would raise only about $5 million of the projected $17 million annual gap in road maintenance needs in Clackamas County.

“We are almost counting on the state passing a transportation package” in the 2017 legislative session, she said.

“There is this assumption out there that we do not need to vote on this because the state will take care of it or the federal government will pay for it,” Commissioner Smith said. “I think that is not the case.”

The local fee might result in a form of sticker shock. The state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division (DMV) collects the basic annual fee of $43 every two years, so drivers actually pay $86. So a $25 annual local fee, which would be collected at the same time, would be $50 for the two-year period.

Smith voiced reservations about the vehicle registration fee in isolation.

Commissioners are poised to refer to voters a $58.7 million bond issue for replacement and expansion of the emergency communications system it owns jointly with Washington County. The projected property tax rate is 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Clackamas County is among the 20 member agencies of the Clackamas 800 Radio Group, which has requested the commissioners to refer the bond to voters May 17. The consortium itself does not have authority to do so.

But Smith said most voters will associate the request with the county itself.

“We get to be the ones who raise people’s taxes and frankly, that’s not popular with a lot of voters out there,” she said. “The voters are going to get weary of it.”

Smith also said there are other needs that deserve attention:

• A new courthouse in Oregon City, within the county’s Red Soils Complex, to replace a nearly 80-year-old building on a site that is likely to collapse into the Willamette River after a severe earthquake. Voters have twice rejected property tax levies for this purpose. The state will pay half the cost,through bonds, but the county still would have to come up with its share.

• A resolution of the future of the county fairgrounds, perhaps through a voter-approved special-purpose district similar to that for libraries.

• Expansion of wastewater treatment capacity, whose costs normally are borne by user fees. The commissioners serve as the governing board for Service District No. 1, which covers northern Clackamas County and some cities.

“This is not just about roads," Smith said. "We have not tackled our priorities. We have not said in a very public way that these are ongoing priorities for 10, 12, 15 years.”

Commissioner Savas said the board ought to find a way to proceed.

“It’s difficult sometimes to watch an election date pass by,” he said. “We have all these needs, time seems to go and these issues don’t seem to get any better.”

Commissioner Schrader said she was willing to proceed with some action on road repairs.

“I suspect we will never have enough resources to do what we need to do. My understanding is that transportation and roads are a high priority, and they resonate with our constituency,” Schrader said.

“The sensible thing to me is to tackle one thing at a time to the best of our ability.”

pwong@pamplinmedia.com.com

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Link to specific repaving projects proposed by Clackamas County:

www.clackamas.us/bcc/documents/presentation/20151215apolicy.pdf