Council vote on Dec. 18 assumes mayors won't block proposal

The Metro Council appears prepared to place a $50 million natural areas levy on the May 2013 ballot despite requests from most mayors in the area for a delay.

The council is scheduled to hold a hearing and vote on the referral on Dec. 18. Metro President Tom Hughes says the hearing and vote will proceed, despite a Nov. 30 letter from 19 mayors in the region asking for more time to study its potential impacts on their budgets.

Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, who signed the letter, sent a separate letter to Hughes opposing the levy because it will reduce his city’s budget.

“I must implore you to consider the consequences of this action on your local government partners and their own need to provide critical public safety services,” Bemis wrote on Nov. 29.

Hughes, however, says Metro needs to invest more money in its about 16,000 acres of natural lands and open spaces. The council is leaning toward of five-year levy of 9.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. It would raise about $10 million a year and cost the owner of a $200,000 home slightly less than $20 a year.

“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,” Hughes wrote to the mayors on Dec. 6.

At issue is compression, a side effect of Oregon’s complicated property tax limitation system. It allows some new levies approved by the voters of one government to reduce the property taxes that can be collected by other governments.

Compression is beginning to reduce the budgets of some governments, including Gresham and Portland. In their Nov. 30 letter, the 19 mayors asked for more time to understand how Metro’s proposed measure would affect their budgets, especially considering the money measures that passed at the general election, including ones to fund the Multnomah County library district and the Washington County enhanced sheriff’s patrol district.

During a Dec. 4 work session, members of the Metro Council reviewed some preliminary figures prepared by their staff. They showed some compression would occur throughout the region. For example, Washington County would be unable to collect more than $50,000 a year and Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue would be unable to collect more than $23,000 a year. The council did not think these were significant amounts, however.

“I just don’t see the problem,” said Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder.

The figures were presented that evening to the Hillsboro City Council work session on the levy. Council members were not convinced the figures were accurate.

Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey, who signed the Nov. 30 letter on behalf of the mayors, said they will not try to block the referral, however.

“We put Metro on notice that we are concerned about compression, and we will do so again if Metro tries to put any other measure on the ballot,” Willey said.

Metro acquired most of its natural areas and open spaces with funds from bond measures approved in 1995 and 2006. The measures did not include any funds to maintain or enhance the properties.

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