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Cities to Clackamas board: Consider local gas tax

Clackamas County commissioners have been urged to consider a gasoline tax as an alternative to a vehicle registration fee on the Nov. 8 ballot for a local source to pay for road work.

Although either option has not fared well with Oregon voters in the past, voter approval May 17 of a 10-cent tax in Portland has fueled interest.

“Portland has given us a gift,” Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba said June 9 at a meeting of city and county officials in Oregon City.

But opinions among the officials were as divided as the 52-48 split by which Portland voters approved the tax, which will run for four years.

West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod said his preference was for a vehicle registration fee.

“I think it would be easier to sell,” he said. “It’s difficult for people to vote in a gas tax.”

The five county commissioners will decide their course after a June 28 policy session. They will be doing so after voter approval May 17 of Measure 3-478, which advised the commissioners to pursue “voter-approved” funding sources — but did not specify what they should be.

Commissioner Paul Savas, the swing vote for putting the advisory measure on the primary ballot, said the county cannot afford to pass up putting a funding measure in the general election.

“Otherwise, it will be a long time,” Savas said, before action by either the Oregon Legislature — which has a joint committee considering a plan for the 2017 session — or Metro, the regional planning agency, which also is weighing a plan.

“I agree that we cannot wait for Salem,” Commissioner Jim Bernard said. “If we do, it will never happen.”

Two other commissioners said that waiting was not an option for the county, 53 percent of its 1,400 miles of roads now rated in fair or poor condition.

“We have to take care of our own maintenance,” Board Chairman John Ludlow said.

“We felt we need to solve our own problem and go to our own people,” Commissioner Tootie Smith said.

The choices

The commissioners have been leaning toward a countywide vehicle registration fee of $25 annually, which would be tacked onto the statewide annual fee of $43, which is collected every other year.

They have proposed to limit it to seven years and earmark the money for 47 projects around the county.

“We need to say what we will do, where we will do it and when we will do it,” said Barbara Cartmill, the county director of transportation and development, whose agency prepared the list.

Only Multnomah County has such a fee, and commissioners there imposed the $19 annually without an election. Similar measures have failed at the ballot box in several counties, including Clackamas County in 2011.

State law requires that 40 percent of the proceeds from such a fee be shared with cities. Based on a $25 local fee, Clackamas County would receive about $5.2 million annually — still short of its $17 million annual backlog of deferred maintenance of roads — and cities would split the other $3.5 million.

To raise the same amounts through a fuel tax, county officials estimate the rate would be 6 cents per gallon. City officials want the county to analyze how much could be raised and distributed under an 8-cent rate.

State law does not require counties to share local fuel taxes with cities, unlike a vehicle registration fee.

“But unless the county is ready to make that commitment, this is a waste of time,” said Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp, who argued that voters within cities otherwise would have no incentive to support a county-only tax.

Brenda Perry, a West Linn city councilor, said she would support such a split “even though I am not comfortable with gas tax fluctuations.”

She referred to information that showed growing vehicle registrations in the county — although they took a dip between January 2009 and January 2014 — but falling statewide fuel-tax collections over a decade, though there has been an uptick since 2012.

About half of Clackamas County’s people live outside cities, and they become a clear majority when the populations of Canby, Estacada, Molalla and Sandy are added, according to 2015 population estimates.

Neighboring counties have a fuel tax — 3 cents in Multnomah, 1 cent in Washington — and so do 24 cities, including Canby, Milwaukie and Sandy. However, since lawmakers decided in 2009 to require voter approval of new or increased local fuel taxes, only four cities have done so — Brookings, Phoenix and Troutdale in 2015, in addition to Portland, where the tax will take effect in September.

Uncertain prospects

Voters on May 17 rejected a 3-cent increase in Sandy, which already has a 2-cents-per-gallon tax.

Jeremy Pietzold, president of the Sandy City Council, said advocates attempted unsuccessfully to persuade voters that a greater share of the tax would be paid by motorists going to and from Mount Hood on U.S. 26.

Unlike a fuel tax, a local vehicle registration fee could be imposed by the commissioners without an election.

“The citizens have spoken to us,” said Milwaukie City Councilor Wilda Parks, also a public member of the county budget committee, referring to the 69 percent majority on the advisory measure. “We just need to do it.”

But the May 17 advisory measure specifies “voter-approved funding,” and while it is not binding on the commissioners, all of them have said they are unwilling to act unilaterally.

“See what they say to you,” Ludlow said, if city councilors did something similar without an election. (Cities, however, lack authority to impose vehicle registration fees.)

Other city officials urged commissioners to consider putting both options on the ballot.

“But I do not favor asking two questions of the voters,” Smith said.

Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay agreed. “The more things you pile onto the ballot, the less chance they will have to pass,” he said.

Jeff Gudman, a Lake Oswego city councilor and the Republican nominee for state treasurer, said there is a difference between the ideal and the real.

“Do I want to win or make a point?” he said. “I want to win.”

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