Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington feels pressured from both sides on the regional government’s proposed natural area levy.

The levy would raise around $50 million in five years to maintain and enhance the nearly 16,000 acres of parks and open spaces that Metro has acquired. The Metro Council is expected to vote on Dec. 18 to place the levy on the May 2013 ballot.

Harrington, who represents Hillsboro and other parts of Northern Washington County, says she has heard from many people who think more money is needed. For example, the levy would not fund enough improvements to open the large Chehalem Ridge Natural Area that Metro owns near Forest Grove to the public.

“There’s a lot of interest in gaining access to Chehalem Ridge in Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Cornelius,” she says.

At the same time, 19 mayors in the region wrote Metro President Tom Hughes on Nov. 30 to ask that the council delay its vote. They are worried the levy will take money from a number of their cities because of “compression,” a side effect of Oregon’s complicated property tax limitation system.

“Some cities would have their ability to raise revenue for vital police and fire protection services substantially limited as a result of having additional regional levies on the books,” according to the letter, which was signed by Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey on behalf of the 18 other mayors in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

The mayors are asking for more to study the potential effects on their cities using the most recent property tax data, including the impacts of the tax measures passed at the November general election.

In a Dec. 6 reply to Willey, Hughes wrote that the vote was 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,” wrote Hughes, a former Hillsboro mayor.

During a Dec. 4 work session on the levy, the Metro Council reviewed tables estimating the impact of the natural area levy on a number of cities and special districts prepared by a staff economist. They showed the impact would be relatively small, reducing total budgets by only around a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

The mayors do not trust Metro’s figures, however, and want more time to generate their own data. Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue has released an analysis showing compression is already occurring in Washington County. The district has not yet updated it to include money measures passed at the last election.

“Their game plan is to move it forward,” Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax says of Metro’s timetable. “It causes us some angst.”

Partnership and coordination

The tug of war reveals political tensions swirling around both Metro and its natural lands program. The vast majority of the properties — around 12,400 acres — were purchased with funds generated by two bond measures overwhelmingly approved by regional voters in 1995 and 2006. Much of the rest were parks donated by other governments to Metro.

Some of the natural lands have been improved with parking lots, restrooms, trails and other features and opened to the public. They include the Cooper Mountain Nature Park, a 230-acre park on the edge of Beaverton operated by the Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District.

But the bond measures did not include funds to open all of the lands to the public. Still off limits is the largest acquisition, the 1,200-acre Chehalem Ridge Natural Area, which features spectacular views of the Tualatin Valley and Cascade Mountains.

“It’s a fabulous resource for the communities of Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Cornelius. Can you imagine if there was not only a day park but overnight camping there?” asks Harrington.

The proposed levy only includes enough money to begin master planning the area, however. Most of the money is dedicated to what Harrington describes as needed maintenance and restoration projects that will cost far more in the future if they are not undertaken now.

They include work at the natural area owned by Metro in Hillsboro at the confluence of Dawson and Rock Creek at the end of Drake Lane.

The letter from the mayors reveals that compression is not their only concern, however. It was authorized an at informal monthly gathering of regional mayors started by Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden to discuss regional issues outside of the forums established by Metro. The letter includes a call for increased communication between Metro and local elected officials on such issues in the future.

“We also feel that, preceding any discussions about future revenue for Metro, we would encourage the Metro elected officials to sit down early next year with local elected officials to review and discuss their respective governmental roles in the region; where are they aligned, and where is there conflict, potential or actual,” according to the letter. “We believe that Metro can be helpful in a number of areas, but we remain concerned that those areas of assistance should be in partnership and coordination with local government.”

Long-range plans

During the Dec. 4 work session, the Metro Council tentatively agreed to ask votes to approve a levy of 9.6 centers per $1,000 of assessed property value. That would generate around $10 million a year for five years. It would cost the owner of a $200,000 home slightly less than $20 a year.

According to a draft resolution discussed at the work session, the levy funds would maintain and enhance approximately 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, however. In April, 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 recommend a five-year levy.

“The panel said we need to come up with a long-range plan for the properties, but that there are maintenance and restoration projects that need to be started right now,” says Harrington.

The right directionby: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE: FILE PHOTO - Metro officials tour the Chehalem Ridge Natural Area in January 2010, shortly after Metro bought it.

Metro has conducted extensive polling that indicates such a measure would pass, especially of the ballot title says the funds will also 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.

A number of environmental and conservation organizations are already planning to support the levy if it is referred to the ballot, says Mike Wetter, executive director of the Intertwine Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports connecting and using trails, parks and open spaces in the region.

“There’s an awareness that we’ve acquired natural land and open spaces that we can’t afford to maintain. This levy is seen as a small step in the right direction,” says Wetter.

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