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Friday, May 2, 2014

Last Night's "Street Fee" Town Hall Was Fun! Here's What You Missed.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 9:44 AM

Novick_car.jpg

Commissioner Steve Novick has been tooling around town in the last two weeks, making his best pitch for an $8 or $12 monthly fee that could give a financial boost to his Bureau of Transportation. Usually, Mayor Charlie Hales has come along to give the hard sell, too.

Hales had a scheduling conflict last night, leaving Novick and PBOT Director Leah Treat to spar with a fairly acrimonious crowd of 60 or so in SE Portland's Woodstock neighborhood. These people were not afraid to jeer—particularly early on in the meeting.

There were fans of a new fee in the audience, as well. Thanks to a call to arms earlier in the week that quickly made its way to the city's cyclists, attendees were as likely to carry a pannier and sweated-out shirt back (it was hot) as they were to harbor a grudge against any—ANY—attempt to better fund Portland's streets (if there was anyone with both, they didn't speak up).

Under the proposal Novick is floating, households would pay a monthly fee of either $8 or $12 per month. Businesses would be assessed a fee depending on their square footage, and an approximation of the "trips" they create on Portland's worn out byways. The fee would raise between $34 million and $52 million a year, according to PBOT estimates.

At this point, more about the street fee is up in the air than settled. PBOT says it's taking the feedback from the four town halls, and will bring a proposal before city council in June. Some things worth noting from last night's meeting, though.

•Novick appears to be leaning against a public vote. The commissioner was asked repeatedly last night to put the street fee on the November ballot—something favored by two of his city council colleagues. "If we decided to punt every tough decision to voters, there really wouldn't be such thing as political leadership," Novick said at one point.

There are good reasons most proponents of a street fee want to avoid a vote. The city's own polling data suggests the fee has a bare majority of voters behind it, at best. That lead could be washed away amid the rhetoric of campaign season.

•Even the people who most want new funding for streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc., sort of hate the fee idea. It's regressive, slapping the same bill on households whether they make $30,000 or $300,000. Aaron Brown, president of pedestrian advocacy group Oregon Walks, spoke out in favor of the fee during last night's town hall, but afterward voiced his reservations.

"Why would we support this horrible regressive thing?" he said, making a rhetorical point more than being 100 percent sincere.

But that sentiment holds with a lot of people who really, really want better transportation funding. Even Novick has bemoaned the fee model, saying he'd much rather support an income tax, but that survey participants hated that proposal.

•The pitch from PBOT is that the street fee will hit residents and businesses about equally, with households pitching in a flat fee that will account for half the revenue, and businesses putting in the other half. In practice, it's likely to be more-reliant on residents than that. PBOT manager Mark Lear said after the meeting it's likely businesses—some, at least—will shift costs onto consumers via price increases.

PBOT hasn't looked into how that might play out. Nearly 30 Oregon cities have instituted street fees, but PBOT staff wasn't sure last night if studies had been done around costs. Lear noted, though, that almost 70 percent of Portland businesses are small enough they'd pay less than $700 a year in street fees. Larger businesses would see yearly fees well into the thousands.

"I'm gonna be charged in trips nobody's making," said Ann Sanderson, who owns Odango! Hair Studio, a Woodstock salon. Sanderson says she's pro-tax, but the street fee seems unfair. The majority of her customers are Woodstock residents, she says, who drive minuscule distances for appointments at Odango! if they drive at all.

Sanderson is president of the Woodstock Community Business Association, but made clear she was only speaking as a small-business owner. She'd consider raising her rates if a street fee was implemented, she said. "But you can't in certain economies."

•There's no indication how the city would collect the street fees, though including them with Portlanders' water and sewer bills is clearly out. Novick did indicate the city might give scofflaws some slack. He told the audience it's inefficient to attempt to collect money from people who owe less than $100. So if the city get's a street fee, you may have months of leeway if you need to make some sort of statement, or whatever.

•Novick's favorite comment of the night, from a worked up guy in a pink tie-dye shirt: "This is nothing but taking YOUR money to pave OTHER PEOPLE'S streets, and it is nothing but graft and corruption."

Novick, at the meeting's end, said it was his first time being accused of graft and corruption in office, and thanked the man, who had already left.

UPDATE, 10:32 am: Novick called to re-iterate his point on that last bit. "I think I said: 'I don't think there's any point to being in city government unless you're being accused of graft and corruption," he says.

Fair enough.

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