Hales, Novick want options for street repair fundraising

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO JAIME VALDEZ - Mayor Charlie Hales manned heavy equipment Monday when he announced that the city exceeded its street maintenance goal last year.Mayor Charlie Hales created a stir last week when he dared anyone to prove any city money was misspent in his two annual budgets.

Hales issued the challenge near the end of the June 24 public forum on his proposed street fee for businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations.

“If you can find misspent money in my budgets, I’ll show up on your doorstep with $10 and a TV reporter,” Hales told the dozens of people who attended the forum.

A short time later, Dana Haynes, Hales’ press aide, said his boss meant any spent “illegally.” Haynes said Hales was sick and tired of allegations that the city was spending money illegally — a possible reference to an ongoing civil lawsuit charging the City Council has misappropriated water and sewer rate funds.

“People don’t know it, but these budgets are po red over by the independent City Budget Office, the City Attorney’s Office, the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission, and the best press corps in the Northwest,” Haynes says. “His challenge: Do what none of those groups can do, and find even one illegally spent dollar in his budget.”

Hales also has stressed that his budgets have increased spending on street maintenance. At a Monday morning press conference, he announced that the Portland Bureau of Transportation maintained 103 miles of streets last year, more than double the amount in the previous fiscal year.

“We promised we’d get back to basics, and we have,” Hales says.

But it also was clear that many of those who attended the June 24 forum at the Oregon Convention Center were upset about previous city spending, including money spent legally.

Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick are crafting a Transportation User Fee to raise about $50 million a year, primarily for street maintenance and safety projects, such as sidewalks and crosswalks. A number of people who testified slammed the city for spending transportation money on what they called “vanity projects,” however.

Examples included the OHSU Aerial Tram, the Portland Streetcar, and light rail projects. One person also criticized Novick for including $650,000 to continue studying the Southwest Corridor Plan in the new budget for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which he oversees.

Novick tried to downplay the previous spending decisions at the forum. He explained that the City Auditor’s Office says PBOT needs to spend at least $75 million a year on maintenance to begin catching up with years of deferred work. But the auditor’s office has also found the council has prioritized only $16 million a year in projects over maintenance. The largest amount was $6.5 million as the city’s share of the Sellwood Bridge replacement project, followed by $3.84 million for Portland Streetcar.

“So even if we’d done none of those projects, we’d still need $59 million a year,” Novick said.

Hales and Novick want the council to consider the final version of the fee on Nov. 12. They have postponed a council vote to put a measure on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot restricting the funds raised by the fee to transportation projects, calling the timing “confusing.”

At a public meeting at Kaiser Permanente on North Interstate Avenue last Wednesday evening, many residents also questioned the proposed fee.

Rodney Marshall of North Portland said he and his neighbors cannot afford to pay any more money to the city, and suggested he might have to move if the council approves it.

“My children were born here — my grandchildren. I have a vested interest in this city,” Marshall said.

Hales and Novick are currently proposing that households pay a fee of $6 a month beginning in July 2015. it rises to $12 a month three years later, and includes discounts for low-income households.

But Hales and Novick also offered a number of options at the residential fee forum. They included a flat income tax of 1/4 of 1 percent and a progressive income tax, with wealthier households paying a higher portion of their incomes.

Hales and Novick also mentioned that their proposed nonresidential fee could be replaced by an increase in business licenses taxes, a tax on business profits, or a sales tax that exempts groceries. No consensus to support any of those options emerged during the forum, however.

Instead, some of those who testified repeated complaints from the previous forum that the city has enough money to properly maintain the streets, but is spending too much of it on nonessential projects. A few referenced a January 2013 city audit that found the council had cut back on street maintenance projects, even though gas tax and parking revenues are projected to rise over the next three years.

Hales noted that his budgets have significantly increased the number of miles being maintained by PBOT, however. He insists the city does not have anywhere near the additional $75 million a year in available funds recommended by the auditor — despite the recent increase in street maintenance spending.

Wednesday’s public forum was the 10th that Hales and Novick have held on their proposed street fee, although only the second since releasing a specific plan.

No more meetings are currently planned. Instead, three working groups are being appointed to work through some of the issues that have been raised over the past few weeks. They include possible breaks for small businesses and how to make the residential fee more progress.

Hales promised that they will hold monthly public meetings as the proposal is finalized.

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