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Street User Fee debated in Woodstock

"ROAD TAX" UPROAR


by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Many hands go up, as attendees make comments and pose questions at the Street User Fee meeting held on May 1st in Woodstock.What has become a rapidly-shifting story débuted in Inner Southeast Portland on May 1, when Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, and representatives of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), held an “information session” regarding the proposed Portland “Street User Fee” at Woodstock Elementary School.

The school’s gymnasium soon filled – standing-room-only – as some 150 neighbors and businesspeople arrived to learn more about the seemingly “out-of-nowhere” proposal.

Some were openly disappointed that Eastmoreland resident Mayor Charlie Hales, who had been scheduled to speak at the meeting, failed to attend.

When THE BEE asked Commissioner Novick if the meeting was being held to listen to constituents – or simply to try to sell the proposal he had originated – he thought for a moment before answering.

“We, I mean, obviously we think that we need to do something. One of the things we think, and the survey we commissioned asked, was ‘What are some things that would make you feel more comfortable with this?’

“This is the same kind of input we’re asking for now,” Novick continued. “For example, what kind of ‘sideboards’ would need to be put into this proposal to make you trust that we will do we say we will do [with these funds].”

Because City officials have deferred street maintenance for so long, they’re pushing for action, the Commissioner said.

“I was told this is the fourth exercise we’ve have about this in the past 14 years,” Novick said. “This is why Mayor Charlie Hales and I feel that we have to do something now. This is an issue where, every year we wait, it gets worse.”

PBOT Director Leah Treat introduced the meeting, telling the crowd, “We have a big decline in our roadway infrastructure. We will not be saved by the federal government or the state. This is an initiative to try to take ownership and responsibility at the local level.”

Treat said PBOT needs $75 million annually “just to get our streets into good condition.”

PBOT veteran, and project manager for the transportation funding initiative, Mark Lear narrated a PowerPoint presentation outlining the results of surveys conducted by a polling firm that showed respondents favoring:

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  • Maintenance

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  • Safer Busy Streets

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  • Safer Neighborhood Streets

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  • Better Public Transit Services

    The presentation also showed mixed results when asking residents if theyd pay $8 or $12 per month. Businesses will also pay fees, Lear casually mentioned. Some that attract many trips per week, like a theater, would pay substantially more than others. (The lower $8 fee schedule subsequently disappeared from later documents presented at similar city meetings.)

    Woodstock attendees had many questions for the Commissioner and Bureau Director.

    Why is this called a fee? was an early question. Why not just call it a tax? The neighbor asking that question followed up, The use of seemingly disingenuous language seems like a polling trick or technique.

    Novick replied, If you're using the revenue to pay for general services, it considered a tax. If it goes to a specific service use, it is considered a fee. This falls more under the fee category.

    Responding to the comment, Novick added, We believe that they used honest language in the polling.

    Several asked when their Inner Southeast Portland street would see improvements. The Woodstock neighborhood stands out for the large number of dirt streets, which makes getting around – particularly south of Woodstock Boulevard, but also to the north – a problematical endeavor.

    Novick replied, “We’re going through a process to identify the streets that need repair the most or which have safety issues. And, Woodstock and other neighborhoods here need to come up with those sort of details like that's contained in the ‘East Portland in Motion’ study [a PBOT-drafted five-year implementation strategy for active transportation projects east of 82nd Avenue].”

    When an attendee opined, “I don’t see a single street in our area on your map. This is nothing but taking our money to pave someone else’s street!” the audience broke out in sustained applause.

    Novick responded, “When polled, the people didn't say to ignore the neighborhood streets, but that the highest priority was the busiest streets ... the ‘though’ streets that get the most use.”

    Several questioned the equity of the “User Fee” plan. For example, one asked why a single-vehicle household would pay the same rate as a neighbor with for family members driving four SUVs. These questions were not directly answered.

    The question that drew the loudest and most sustained applause was, “Why not put it up for a vote?”

    Novick responded, saying that many cities in Oregon have established “User Fees” without a vote of the people.

    Woodstock Community Business Association President Ann Sanderson, of Odango Hair Salon, was present at the meeting.

    Sanderson asked how the “trips per businesses”, and thus the fees, would be calculated and billed.

    PBOT Director Treat said that the business Street User Fee would be calculated on “generated trips” based on Institute of Transportation Engineers manual, which sets the national standard for calculating how much traffic different types and sizes of businesses generate.

    “The calculation is based on the type of property that you are, and then your square feet,” Lear jumped in. “For example, a restaurant is going to have a fewer number of trips than, say, a movie theater.”

    During that meeting, it wasn’t revealed what businesses might be charged.

    About two weeks after the meeting, Sanderson told THE BEE, “I was very surprised when I learned about this at that [Woodstock Elementary] meeting.”

    Then, she said she attended a special meeting on May 20 – at which Novick and Hales specifically excluded media from attending – and learned more about the user fee.

    “They said they would use the water and sewer billing system; so anyone who gets a water bill will also get a street tax,” Sanderson said.

    A commercial property owner – in other words, a business landlord – will pay the tax for all of the businesses within their buildings, unless they are individually metered. “This means they’re turning commercial property owners into tax collectors.”

    For example, Sanderson explained, if a commercial building leases to a hair salon, a convenience store, and a restaurant, the landlord will be assessed three individual rates, and all three will appear on the building’s invoice.

    In summary, Sanderson said, “This isn’t a fee. This appears to be a regressive tax that will hurt business.”

    82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association President Richard Kiely of the Brentwood-Darlington-based Home Run Graphics was also at the May 20 meeting.

    “Without a doubt, our streets need fixing,” Kiely conceded. “I appreciate they have found a solution to funding road repairs. At the same time, I’m going to have to sell a boatload of printing to pay for this. And, customers of all businesses will end up paying part of the tax."

    Two people at that meeting, who asked not to be identified in print, said they were surprised at the strident tone set by Hales and Novick when they said the Street User Fee would not be put up for a vote.

    Hales reportedly told business association representatives that if they could raise the necessary $400,000 they could mount an initiative campaign and put it on the ballot.

    At a press conference held on the morning of May 22, Hales reaffirmed his stand that Portlanders won’t get a voice in the matter, noting that 28 Oregon cities have adopted similar fees without referring them to voters.

    “If the voters are mad enough, Charlie and I are up for re-election in 2015 and they can vote us out,” a pugnacious Novick told reporters at the press conference.

    As this story continued to unfold, the owner of Mike’s Drive-In Restaurants, Todd Freeman, had just gotten wind of the story. Two of his drive-ins are in Clackamas County; the third is in Portland – specifically, Sellwood.

    Using PBOT’s online “Business Street User Fee Calculator” Freeman discovered that his Sellwood store – categorized as a “Fast Food Restaurant” – would pay an “estimated monthly cost” of $552.67.

    “That is outrageous!” Freeman exclaimed. “Money like this? It’s outrageous! We can’t move our business. All we can do is charge more; the customers will decide if they’ll pay for it.”

    Freeman said they pay a similar “user fee” – but only of $35.40 – at their Milwaukie store. “This is on top of Portland’s ‘License Fee’ tax on every dollar we earn. And, in January they put in the new mandatory Sick Leave ordinance, and that adds up to 3.3% of payroll costs.

    “Now this? This is flabbergasting,” Freeman said. “If one has a choice, owners won’t be doing business in Portland.”

    The Portland City Council was planning to hold a public hearing on the proposal at 2 pm on Thursday, May 29. A vote by the Portland City Council was expected to follow on Wednesday, June 4. At least three of the five Commissioners would be needed to pass it, and two – Novick and Hales – were already committed to a vote in favor.