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Clackamas board eyes 6-cent gas tax

Cities would share proceeds from tax or vehicle fee if voters approve Nov. 8

Clackamas County commissioners have set the machinery in motion for a Nov. 8 election on a local 6-cent fuel tax, proceeds from which will be shared with cities for road repairs.

But Chairman John Ludlow says he wants the public to weigh in whether voters should decide on a fuel tax — the clear preference of city officials who met with the commissioners on June 9 — or a $25 vehicle registration fee.

Either option would raise about the same amounts — $5.2 million annually for the county, $3.5 million divided among the cities by population — both assuming a 60-40 split of proceeds.

Ludlow made his comment Tuesday (June 28) after the commissioners requested the county staff to draw up agreements with the cities. The agreements would specify each city’s share based on its population, a resolution from the council in support of the measure — city councils are allowed by law to take stands on ballot measures — and specifics on how a city plans to spend its share of the new money.

Commissioner Jim Bernard, a former mayor of Milwaukie, said cities should have wide latitude as to how to spend their shares — although under state law, it must go toward work on roads and bridges.

“For the county, it’s all about the roadway,” Bernard said.

Without such intergovernmental agreements, the county is not obligated to share fuel-tax proceeds with cities.

Commissioners see support from city voters as essential to passage of any measure, because about half of the county’s voters live within cities.

The Nov. 8 measure is also likely to set a time limit of seven years, after which commissioners would have to return to voters for new taxing authority.

In a May 17 advisory election, voters decided by a 69 percent majority to let the county pursue “voter-approved funding” for a limited number of years to raise money for road repairs. The advisory measure did not specify a source or set a time limit.

Gas tax option

At a June 9 meeting, city officials urged the commissioners to opt for a local fuel tax at 8 cents per gallon — 2 cents less than the 10-cent tax that Portland city voters approved May 17.

The commissioners largely stayed silent on that point then. But on Tuesday, none of them said they would favor going beyond proposing 6 cents.

“I doubt someone would cross the county boundary for a 2-cent savings,” Commissioner Tootie Smith said.

Bernard said he discounted talk by officials in some cities that either the commissioners should refer an 8-cent tax to voters or risk losing city support for any ballot measure.

“I prefer 6 cents over nothing,” he said.

Oregon’s statewide gasoline tax is 30 cents per gallon.

There are local fuel taxes in two counties (Multnomah and Washington) and 24 cities, including Canby, Milwaukie and Sandy. Under a 2009 change, cities and counties must seek voter approval of such taxes; Sandy voters rejected an increase May 17.

Before the May 17 advisory election, commissioners had considered a $25 local vehicle registration fee, tacked onto the $43 statewide fee, for seven years. (The figure is annual, but the fee is collected every other year upon registration.)

Only one county (Multnomah) has a local fee, and it was imposed by board action without an election. City officials urged Clackamas County commissioners to consider a similar step, but commissioners said it would contradict the advisory measure that called for “voter-approved funding.”

“I will not go down that road because it is not honest,” Smith said.

The $5.2 million raised annually over seven years would allow completion of 47 specific projects proposed by the county transportation and development department.

The amount is a fraction of the projected $17 million annual gap between maintenance needs and available money.

“But that (smaller amount) would create trust, and we will have proved the point we can deliver,” Ludlow said. “I think we would have a better opportunity for more money the next time to catch up with the gap.”

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