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Clackamas board hears skepticism about fuel tax plan

Town hall session sets up decision for Nov. 8 ballot measure.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - Clackamas County officials (from left) Administrator Don Krupp; Tootie Smith; Chairman John Ludlow; Jim Bernard; Martha Schrader; and Paul Savas, heard testimony Aug. 3 at West Linn High School on a proposed ballot measure for county road repairs.Clackamas County commissioners heard skepticism, but also some support, for a proposed fuel tax on the Nov. 8 ballot to fund local road repairs.

The commissioners got reactions to the fuel tax, and a proposed tax on retail sales of marijuana for recreational use, during a quarterly town hall meeting at West Linn High School.

The board has scheduled action Thursday (Aug. 11) to refer both tax measures to voters.

The fuel tax would apply countywide; the marijuana tax only in unincorporated areas outside cities.

A tax of 6 cents per gallon of gasoline is proposed to pay for local road repairs, 60 percent of proceeds going to the county — which has specified 47 projects over the seven-year duration of the tax — and 40 percent to participating cities.

John Smolinsky of Milwaukie questioned why it was not enough for the county to rely on proceeds from the growing number of registered vehicles and the gasoline purchased to fuel them.

As of the end of 2015, the county had a total of 434,650 registered vehicles — 347,338 of them passenger vehicles — and the total exceeds the estimated population of 394,000. Four years earlier, the total was 412,297, 323,984 of them passenger vehicles, according to state motor vehicle records.

But the county road fund receives only shares of three state sources: Gasoline tax (now 30 cents), weight-mile tax on heavy trucks, and vehicle registration fee.

County Administrator Don Krupp says that like all other western Oregon counties, Clackamas County no longer receives millions from federal timber payments that went exclusively to road work.

As for the other sources, Krupp said, “the cost of maintaining our roads in terms of labor and materials has outpaced the sources of revenue to keep up with those costs.”

Cars are more fuel-efficient, he said, and hybrids and all-electric vehicles use little or no gasoline.

Commissioners said they had preferred a local vehicle registration fee at $25 annually, collected every other year with the statewide fee of $43 annually. But they bowed to preferences of officials from cities, which have about half the county’s population.

“This has to be a collaborative effort,” Commissioner Martha Schrader said.

“The cities have said that we have a lot of tourists and a lot of people who come to the Portland region but are registered in other counties — not Clackamas County — yet they buy gas up here,” Commissioner Paul Savas said.

Only one county (Multnomah) has a local vehicle registration fee, but two counties and 24 cities — Canby, Milwaukie and Sandy among them — have local fuel taxes.

Dave Adams of the Stafford area and Jay Minor of West Linn both said they were supportive of the tax.

Adams questioned whether the money would go toward new roads — particularly in the largely undeveloped Stafford area surrounded by Tualatin, Lake Oswego and West Linn — but the commissioners said all 47 planned projects are for maintenance of current roads.

“We need new roads,” Commissioner Tootie Smith said. “But new roads are so expensive.”

Smith said major projects, such as the widening of six miles of Interstate 205 between Stafford Road and the George Abernethy Bridge, will have to hinge on increased state funding.

Minor, a former contractor, said he supported a previous effort for local road funding, which failed, and questioned whether the current effort would fare any better.

But voters in the May 17 primary gave a 68 percent majority to a county effort to seek “voter-approved funding,” and Chairman John Ludlow said there has been a shift in public perception of the need.

According to county officials, 54 percent of the 1,400-mile road system is now rated in fair or poor condition — and reconstruction costs are 10 times what routine maintenance would be.

“We cannot continue to kick this can down the road,” Ludlow said. “We have got to try something. If it fails, we will be back because this is our responsibility.”

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