Update: Hughes says Metro still scheduled to vote on Dec. 18

With the notable exception of Mayor Sam Adams, most mayors in the region have asked the Metro Council to delay a decision to place another natural areas levy in front of voters next year.

Eighteen mayors signed a Nov. 30 letter to Metro President Tom Hughes asking time to study how the levy might affect the budgets of their cities. The levy would ask voters to help enhance and develop many of the natural areas Metro has acquired during the past 17 years.

The letter was spearheaded by Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey, who says he and the other mayors were concerned that passage of the proposed Metro natural areas levy could reduce their budgets because of “compression,” a side effect of Oregon’s complicated property tax limitation plan that reduces collections of existing levies when new ones pass in some circumstances.

“We need time to study whether the levy will transfer operating funds out of our budgets to Metro,” Willey says.

Forest Grove Mayor Peter Truax signed the letter, even though compression is not an issue in his city. Truax says his signature mostly represented his frustration over a “lack of communication” between the Metro Council and regional mayors.

“We’re getting the impression we’re not being listened to,” says Truax, who’s been part of an informal monthly gathering of mayors initiated by Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden last year. “Metro is not paying a whole lot of attention to what the mayors in the cities they represent have to say.”

Adams’ office says he has no opinion on the measure.

Levy to support existing lands

The Metro Council is scheduled to place the measure on the ballot at its Dec. 18 meeting. A resolution to ask voters to approve a five-year levy at the May 2013 election has already been drafted.

In a Dec. 6 reply to Willey, Hughes said the vote is still planned for Dec. 18.

"While the impacts of compression are important, also important are the opinions of the voters. At every step of the way, they have affirmed that the protection of open spaces and habitat for fish and wildlife is a top priority. We have an obligation to our region’s voters to make the most of these natural areas by removing invasive plants and investing in basic maintenance now. Acting today will reduce long term costs and improve opportunities to enjoy them for our entire community," Hughes wrote.

During a Tuesday work session on the issue, the Metro Council leaned towards supporting a levy of 9.6 cents per $1,000 of property value. That would raise around $10 million annually and cost the owner of a $200,000 home just under $20 a year.

The council agreed passage of the levy would reduce some local budgets, but seemed to think the reductions were minor compared to its potential benefits.

According to a draft resolution, the levy funds would maintain and enhance about 16,000 acres of open space and natural lands that Metro has acquired since 1995. The resolution says 12,400 acres have been purchased with the proceeds of two bond measures approved by Metro voters in May 1995 and November 2006. The remaining acres were acquired through voluntary transfers from local governments.

The 1995 and 2006 bond measures did not specify that any of their funds could be used to maintain or enhance the properties. In April 2012, the Metro Council directed the government’s chief operating officer to establish a Natural Areas Funding Advisory Panel to consider a new funding source for that purpose. In August, the panel recommended a five-year levy.

Metro has conducted extensive polling that indicates such a measure would pass, especially if the ballot title says the funds also would be used to improve water quality for fish and wildlife habitat.

With that language, the measure was approved by more than 60 percent of voters in polls conducted by the Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall research firm of Portland.

An online survey conducted through Metro’s own Opt In program showed similar results. The Opt In survey found support for the measure strongest in Multnomah County at 68 percent, followed by Washington County at 60 percent and Clackamas County at 56 percent.

Properties acquired by Metro are located throughout the region. Some have been improved and opened to the public. They include the Cooper Mountain Nature Park in Washington County, Beggar’s Tick Wildlife Refuge in Multnomah County and Mount Talbert Nature Park in Clackamas County.

Nancy Townsley of the Forest Grove News-Times contributed to this story.

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