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Clackamas County voters to decide fuel, pot taxes

It’s official: Clackamas County voters will decide new local taxes on fuel and retail sales of marijuana on their Nov. 8 ballots.

County commissioners approved formal resolutions Thursday, Aug. 11, to refer both measures to voters in the general election.

One measure would impose a countywide tax of 6 cents per gallon of gasoline, 60 percent of proceeds from which would be earmarked for 47 specific maintenance projects around the county, and the other 40 percent shared with cities. The tax would expire automatically in seven years unless voters renew it.

Cities, under state law, also must spend the money on road work.

The state gasoline tax is 30 cents per gallon.

The other measure would impose a 3 percent tax on retail sales of marijuana for recreational use, on top of a statewide tax of 17 percent. The tax would apply only to retail sales outside city limits.

Both votes were 4-0. Commissioner Paul Savas left the meeting early to represent the county at another function.

The commissioners have discussed both proposals for months — and in the case of a tax to raise money for road work, years.

“I hope the third time is a charm,” said Commissioner Martha Schrader, who was on the board during a previous attempt in 2003.

“As reluctant as I am to support action — taxes, fees or anything else that is going to cost a little more over time — I do with reservations endorse this,” said Les Poole of Gladstone, the only person to testify at the public hearing.

By a 68 percent majority in the May 17 primary, voters endorsed a county effort to pursue “voter-approved funding” for local road work. The commissioners had considered an annual $25 vehicle registration fee — which state law would have allowed them to impose without an election — but substituted a fuel tax after meeting with officials in cities, where about half the county's voters live.

The board made one small change in the ballot title — the official summary of the measure — and the explanatory statement to emphasize the county’s commitment to complete 47 specific projects in unincorporated areas over the seven-year span of the tax.

“I think it would be impressive and the voters would be impressed by it,” Chairman John Ludlow said.

The commissioners acknowledged that a tax would raise only about a third of the $17 million annual gap projected between maintenance needs and available revenues.

“Six cents is nowhere close to what we need,” Commissioner Jim Bernard said. “But it’s a start.”

Multnomah and Washington counties have local fuel taxes, as do two dozen cities, among them Canby, Milwaukie and Sandy. But voters in only a handful of cities — including Portland at 10 cents on May 17 — have approved such taxes since lawmakers in 2009 required elections.

Commissioner Tootie Smith said it’s up to county voters to decide what they want.

“We need to leave our roads in better condition than when we inherited them,” she said.

The marijuana tax generated less discussion, although Bernard raised the possibility of amending the county measure to allow the rate to go higher if state lawmakers raised it in the future.

But County Counsel Stephen Madkour advised against amending the measure so close to the filing deadline. Current law sets a local limit of 3 percent, and Madkour said the commissioners could return to the matter if lawmakers raise the local rate in their 2017 session.

Commissioners say the proceeds would go toward zoning code enforcement, law enforcement, public health, and youth and adult addiction treatment.

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