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CC Rider special district option likely on 2016 ballot

Voters expected to decide special district formation and property tax levy

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - A bus headed for Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus prepares to leave the CC Rider yard in St. Helens. County commissioners are expected to vote next week on putting the option of a special district for CC Rider on the May 2016 ballot.After a failed attempt to generate additional funding for the county’s only transit system by raising the county’s Natural Resources Depletion Fee last May, advocates are now hoping a new special district could be the answer.

“The [Citizens Transportation Advisory Council] felt that the special district would provide a greater focus to improve transit within Columbia County ... to talk about what’s needed and focus on it,” Janet Wright, transit director for CC Rider, told Columbia County commissioners during an afternoon staff meeting Wednesday, Sept. 2.

The proposal means the county’s Board of Commissioners will likely vote at their next regular meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 9, to place a measure on the May 2016 ballot asking voters to approve the formation of a special district for CC Rider and an accompanying property tax levy. The levy would likely be somewhere between 20 cents and 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Commissioners Tony Hyde and Earl Fisher met with members of CC Rider’s CTAC to discuss the merits of having a service district versus a special district.

Committee members said the county would be better served by a special district, which would be operated independently from the county by a board of directors, using revenue from grants and property taxes.

The decision to ask for a property tax levy came after commissioners rejected the idea of raising the gas tax in Columbia County, or attempting to implement a business tax.

Hyde pointed out that the county does not currently have a business licensing program and has no real way to track those doing business in the unincorporated areas it governs. Hyde said even if the county did issue licenses, a new tax could hinder future business growth.

“The last message we want to send out is ‘We don’t have enough businesses, but by the way, we’re going to tax you,’” Hyde said.

Fisher said a gas tax would likely face opposition, saying it “isn’t a viable option.”

“I guess my concern with the gas tax is we’re going to already get a 10-cent [increase] coming to us in July when the Clean Fuels [Bill] kicks in,” Fisher said. “The price that we’re going to pay here will in fact become competitive with what they pay in Washington. ...On top of that, if the state goes back in 2017 to pass a gas tax to fund a transportation bill, and ... if Congress ever gets its head out of the sand ... You can see gas taxes throughout the country go considerably higher.” 

Hyde echoed Fisher’s feelings. “The gas tax won’t fly,” Hyde said. “I’ts hard enough for our merchants to compete. I would never support a gas tax.”

One thing Hyde did agree with was the need to stabilize funding for CC Rider.

“We’re about to get higher education in Columbia County,” Hyde said, referring to Portland Community College’s promise to build a new educational facility in the county in 2017. “The more we can develop a robust system to get those students to and from, the more we can build a workforce.”

Wright said CC Rider would need an estimated $1 million in additional annual revenue to meet its needs and give the transit agency enough money to apply for grants that often require matching contributions.

“In order to operate adequately and make sure that we have enough to cover the facilities that we have in the future, five years out, that’s about what we need,” Wright said.

A financial analysis provided by CC Rider shows a levy of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value would likely generate about $863,000 for the district. A levy of 25 cents would bring in a little more than $1 million each year.