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CC Rider needs stable funding, but 5-243 isn't it

Measure 5-243 proposes to increase the depletion fee on aggregate rock mined in Columbia County from 15 cents to 50 cents per ton — a 35-cent increase — as a means to improve county roads and fund the county’s public transportation service, Columbia County Rider. The latter part of the funding equation that aims at providing a stable funding source for CC Rider has drawn the most oppositional fire.

At its heart, this measure, much like the jail operating levy voters approved a year ago, represents an effort to correct for failing county services. Unlike the jail levy, the chief petitioner behind the measure, Thelma Bonar, a senior citizen who lives in Warren, targeted the rock miners operating in Columbia County as a revenue source, versus once again targeting county homeowners to pay the difference between solvent and insolvent county operations.

To be clear, should the measure fail, there will be little noticeable difference to county roads. Yes, there is insufficient funding for county road maintenance as it exists, but the fallout would not result in accelerated decay.

We have been led to believe the effect on CC Rider, however, would be fatal.

We have watched CC Rider evolve out of a troubled transit operation more than a decade ago, called COLCO, to a split service involving Metro West out of Hillsboro and the Scappoose Senior Center, which ran a small bus service known by the acronym SCAT. The Columbia County Board of Commissioners then took steps to consolidate the services under one banner, the Columbia County Rider, which began operation in 2004.

CC Rider started as a predominantly dial-a-ride service that had few fixed routes. Eventually, commuter services to Portland and Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus were established, and ridership grew. Indeed, despite claims from CC Rider opponents, the service has provided a vital link to employment and higher educational opportunities outside of Columbia County. For the people who rely on it day-to-day, its shutdown would be catastrophic. And that’s no small number: There were 18,000 commuter rides in April alone, according to data provided by CC Rider.

But despite its users’ reliance on CC Rider, it has never been a funding priority for Columbia County. CC Rider administrators have had to scrounge for every dime to keep the service operational. Most of its operational dollars originate from federal transportation grants. But there’s a catch with those grants: matching dollars are needed, and without the match, the transportation grants go unclaimed. As such, CC Rider has subsisted off of the inconsistent graces of local community contributions, such as community dollar pledges from the cities of Scappoose, St. Helens, Clatskanie, etc., and even contributions from PCC.

But it’s a shaky funding model. Just last week, in fact, the city of Clatskanie, some of whose officials have written in opposition to Measure 5-243, denied a community contribution pledge to CC Rider, further emphasizing the service’s need for a new source of operational revenue.

We believe the county commissioners should have taken steps years ago to establish a transit tax district that would provide stable funding for CC Rider. Instead, its needs were routinely placed on the backburner as demands for public safety and jail services took priority. It was never the right time for CC Rider, and now that its proponents have been forced to seek out alternative revenue sources, the service is being further demonized. In fact, one county commissioner, Henry Heimuller, who formerly worked for Metro West and oversaw CC Rider operations before being elected to office, has written in opposition to Measure 5-243, yet has offered no funding alternative to maintain this important service.

In that vein, if the rock miner opponents of this measure want a place to direct their scorn over its proposal, they should look no further than the Columbia County Courthouse.

When it comes to the claims of the rock miners, many national corporations with overseas operations, it has been difficult to fully swallow their arguments about lost jobs should Measure 5-243 pass. One argument is that Columbia County is the only county that has such a fee, and as such any increase would eclipse the narrow margin on rock sales so that it would not be commercially viable. Not knowing the full tax structure under which rock operations outside the county are operating makes it difficult to assess the disparity between them and local operations.

Additionally, we routinely have heard about the quality of local rock versus rock mined elsewhere, including lesser overburden in places like Scappoose, so it stands to reason there are fewer costs of doing business with local rock than that which is mined outside of the county.

Still, despite these questions, we cannot advocate for Measure 5-243. There is potential, we believe, to refashion such a measure so that it targets the larger rock mining corporations and leaves the mom-and-pop miners out of the mix. One possibility would be a tonnage threshold above which mining operations would be subject to an increased depletion fee.

Another problem with the measure is that it far exceeds an inflationary adjustment to the depletion fee set in the 1990s.

By using the inflationary calculator provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 10 cents in 1990 works out to 18 cents in today’s numbers. That’s more than the 15 cents per ton at which the fee has been set since 1997, but even 15 cents in 1997 dollars — about 22 cents today, according to the inflation calculator — is less than half of the total fee being proposed by Measure 5-243.

We believe a long-term funding solution is needed for CC Rider, but this isn’t it. While we acknowledge there is potential for a local natural resources depletion fee to be imposed to aid the funding of many local services, such an action requires more thought and consideration than what is captured in the Measure 5-243 language.

In that light, we strongly recommend the advocates of stable funding for CC Rider carry their campaign to the county commissioners, who have long benefited from election campaign contributions provided by the rock mining corporations.

Indeed, if Measure 5-243 fails, many of CC Rider’s advocates could find themselves with no access to out-of-area jobs, no access to higher education, and plenty of time on their hands to do so.

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