It's two nights ago, and what do I find after a long day of slaving over a warm laptop at the Mercury? Why, a pile of discarded arts tax mailers.
That’s right. A pile of thrown-out mailers exhorting Portlanders to pay the new $35-per-income-earner arts tax was sitting in the trashcan directly beneath my apartment building’s mailboxes. A tax that was designed to fund arts programs at Portland schools and nonprofits, and a tax that, yes, 61 percent of us voted for in November.
Now, I don’t want to think of these thrown out pleas for revenue as a sign of things to come. But assuming the four discarded mailers are indeed portentous, then, as many have suspected, the city is going to have a hell of a time getting people to pay. And they really, really want people to pay. (They set up a website and everything, albeit one that doesn’t take debit cards—and charges a buck if you want to use a credit card.)
The thing is the city knows not everyone is going to pay, just like my building's trashcan kind of proves.
So let’s assume for a moment my trashcan is in fact a representative sample—it’s not, this is very unscientific and my math skills aren't much better than a third-grader's, but stay with me. There are 14 units in my building. I saw four discarded mailers. In this scenario each thrown-away mailer represents someone who either doesn't know about the tax, doesn't want to pay the tax, or thought the mailer was just more junk mail (which seems very likely). This means roughly 28 percent of my building probably isn’t going to shell out for the city.
This number get slightly larger when you consider about half the units have two residents. Since the tax is expected to be paid per income earner, but the mailer is sent to only one box per resident, that means the actual number of people in my building who won’t pay could be as high as eight. Or about 38 percent of the residents in my building.
Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say everyone else in my building is a good, civic-minded individual like myself, who placed the mailer on a magnetic dry-erase board to remind themselves, “You know, dumbass, you did vote for this. So now you need to pay.” And that means 62 percent—or about the same percentage of voters who backed the tax—will be like me and (perhaps grudgingly) pay.
The thing is that’s not too far off of the city’s own estimate.
The city has told me it's assuming a lot of people won't pay. Of the roughly 400,000 folks eligible to pay, the city guesses—at least in the beginning—that only about 85 percent will comply, and maybe only three-quarters of those people will do it during the first fiscal year. This means by the end of the fiscal year the city only expects to get about $8.9 million in revenue. Our trashcan estimate is only slightly smaller, netting the city about $8.7 million.
(As an aside, that $12.2 million you've been seeing in other outlets? Don't buy it. That's based on everyone paying the arts tax at the same rate as they pay their county taxes, or about 91 percent.)
So—keeping in mind these numbers literally came out of the garbage—what’s the lesson here? Maybe it’s that Portlanders are only slightly more cynical about paying the arts tax than their political leaders expect. Or maybe it's going to be way worse. Considering I haven't gone back to the trash to see how many more mailers were thrown out later in the evening, that's entirely possible. Or, maybe, just maybe the city’s got our number after all.