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Clackamas board looks to voters for road options

May 17 ballot planned for advisory vote; Feb. 18 hearing will shape measure.

Clackamas County commissioners, by a 3-2 vote Tuesday (Feb. 9), favor an advisory election May 17 to guide future decisions about how to raise money for road repairs.

Some of those options may require the commissioners to go back to voters for approval in the Nov. 8 general election.

But the commissioners have not yet settled on what advisory question to ask or how specific they should get about funding choices.

Commissioners have until Feb. 26 to put one or more advisory questions on the May 17 ballot. They plan a public hearing on the matter at their Feb. 18 business meeting, which is in the evening because it’s the third Thursday of the month.“If the advisory vote comes back negative, we go back and ask them again,” Commissioner Tootie Smith said. “I firmly believe voters do not pay attention to these things until they are forced to do so on a ballot.”

Smith said a pair of public votes, timed six months apart, would allow time for advocates to make their case for more money over a fixed period — five to seven years — to carry out specific projects listed in advance.

“It doesn’t matter what we think; it matters what the voters think,” she said. “It’s up to us to come up with proposed language they can support.”

Chairman John Ludlow also supported an advisory election, although he said he would temporarily drop his advocacy of a proposal for a local vehicle registration fee of $5 annually and a countywide gasoline tax of 3 cents per gallon.

Ludlow reaffirmed his support for new money for maintenance of the 1,400-mile county system, more than half of which is rated as fair to poor.

“I will say it over and over again — we have no business building new unless we take care of what we've got, and we cannot take care of what we've got,” he said.

Commissioner Paul Savas was the swing vote for an advisory election, although he differed from Ludlow in what he would like to see in new funding sources for road work. Savas said voters in such an election should not be asked to choose among specifics.

“It would be a direct way to communicate to voters that we actually have a problem with road funding and maintenance,” Savas said.

“I’m not firm that we have to do a May advisory vote. But I think it would be educational, leading up to May, to establish that they know in advance there is a problem. If the vote says yes, voters agree we should seek funding sources for our road problem and we come back and honor that, I cannot imagine the voters saying no (in November).”

Savas said he would like to see the county and cities set aside a portion of new money for potential local matches of state and federal grants on such regional routes as the Sunrise Corridor (Highway 212) that connects Clackamas with Boring, and Interstate 205 widening between Stafford and the George Abernethy Bridge.

Dissenters on the advisory vote were Commissioners Jim Bernard and Martha Schrader, both of whom said that the county should work toward voter approval of a vehicle registration fee or fuel tax in November — but no advisory votes in May.

“Using the ballot for polling is not good,” Bernard said. “The answer will be ‘no’ and ‘no.’”

Bernard said if the commissioners seek approval of a vehicle registration fee Nov. 8, they could turn to the very cities that also would benefit from a share of its proceeds.

“I think we have to look toward them for their support and commitment that they will work to make this happen,” he said.

Schrader had a similar view: “I am really fearful that it’s going to be ‘no’ and then ‘no,’ and then people will say: Why aren’t you listening to us?”

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Funding options

Clackamas County has 1,400 miles in its road network, and officials say 54 percent of the system is in fair or poor condition. They also project a $17 million annual gap between current sources and estimated needs for road maintenance.

Commissioners are considering options that voters may be asked about at the May 17 primary election and the Nov. 8 general election.

They say that whatever money measures appear on the ballot would be for a fixed period — after which voters would have to renew them — and the proceeds earmarked for specific projects to be completed by the end of the period.

A $25 annual local vehicle registration fee, tacked onto the state fee of $43, would raise $35 million for the county over seven years — about $5 million per year — and $24 million for cities. By law, a county fee must be split 60-40 with cities.

Only Multnomah County has such a fee at $19 annually. Clackamas County voters rejected such fees in 1997 and 2011 — the latter fee of $5 earmarked for replacement of the Sellwood Bridge, which Multnomah County eventually undertook on its own — and voters in Washington and Lane counties also have rejected fees in recent years.

Registration fees are paid every other year.

A countywide gasoline tax of 3 cents per gallon, added to the state tax of 30 cents, would raise about $4 million annually — none of it shared with cities. Multnomah and Washington counties, plus 14 cities — among them Canby and Milwaukie — have local fuel taxes.

Clackamas County voters rejected a 3-cent tax in 1997.

Counties can impose a vehicle registration fee without voter approval, but only voters can approve new or increased fuel taxes as a result of a 2009 law.

— Peter Wong