Commissioner Steve Novick has confirmed rumors flying through city hall yesterday and first put into print last night by the Oregonian: The residential part of his and Mayor Charlie Hales' proposed street maintenance and safety fee is on hold "indefinitely."
Novick's comments came during a spot on Jefferson Smith's "Thank You Democracy" radio program on Xray.fm. On Monday, Novick had insisted, when I asked, that the residential fee was "steady as she goes" toward a promised vote this Wednesday.
Novick, who started Monday by tweaking Commissioner Nick Fish with a Casablanca reference, clammed up later in the day, refusing to answer more questions about the timeline potentially changing after word began leaking out about discussions in city hall leaning that way. Those hints took on new vigor after Fish, a staunch opponent of just having a council vote on the street fee, made his own Casablanca joke on Twitter—suggesting he and Novick had reached an ending as mutually agreeable as the one in the movie.
Sources say Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the swing vote on the fee, was involved in discussions over the delay.
Novick has yet to return a call this morning asking for more information about his decision and the implications for his plan. Hales' spokesman also has yet to acknowledge several messages seeking comment, first left yesterday morning and again this morning.
Citizens, businesses, and lobbyists took turns over five and a half hours last week complaining at a hearing about both the mechanics of the proposed fee—up to $12 for families every month and thousands a year for businesses, raising up to $50 million—as much as an approval process that saw several late amendments and a rush to a council vote this month.
Before that hearing, Novick and Hales confirmed plans to cleave off the nonresidential portion of the fee, pushing that off until November to refine it. Then, during the hearing, Novick and Hales announced plans to phase the fee in over three years. Fritz modified that plan with her own amendment calling for fees of $6, then $9, and up to $12, with proportionate two-thirds discounts for low-income families.
Novick and Hales said they were pushing so hard for a June vote out of concern whatever was approved would be referred to the ballot by lobbyists and others, a promise repeated at the hearing by Paul Romain, hired hand for the Oregon Petroleum Association, the group that killed the city's last stab in 2008. Novick and Hales said going early would get the fee in front of voters during this November's higher-turnout general election.
Fish and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, and several people who testified, suggested commissioners, in that case, should just refer the fee to the ballot themselves—and tamp down fluoride-style anger over the process.
Whether that might happen still remains to be seen. Presumably we'll see some statement soon on what's next.
UPDATE 10:50 AM: That statement has arrived, and it clarifies, as expected, what's next. A vote on both sides of the fee will come in November, the same time a vote had been set on the nonresidential fee. That plan, ironically, is similar to what Fish proposed at the end of last week's council hearing—except it still indicates Hales and Novick won't call for sending the fee to voters.
The council will still vote this Wednesday on sending voters a charter amendment, this November, that would bind the city's use of the revenue raised by the fee. More public forums will be held. And "work groups" will be convened to talk about two issues: how to ease the burden on small businesses, and how to better extend discounts on all utility payments to all low-income customers. The fee would still take effect July 1, 2015.
”The last street free proposal in 2008 was derailed by a lobbyist filing a referendum petition,” said Commissioner Novick. “This one has been temporarily delayed due to concerns voiced by small business owners and low-income people and advocates. We are in a hurry to get to work, but if we’re going to be delayed, it’s for the right reasons.”
“Think of this as a track race,” Hales said. “We haven’t moved the finish line, which is July 2015. But we’re moving the starting blocks. We heard from the community: We are taking our time to hear a more robust debate on the details of this fee. But we have not wavered in our resolve. It is our intention to finally address our deteriorating streets.”
The full statement is here (pdf).
Update 12:43 PM: Fritz's hand really was important in shaping this delay. She tells me she now firmly agrees with Novick and Hales that a referral to voters would be a bad idea—but she made it equally clear that the angst and sadness that had been pouring into city hall meant more time was needed to work out details and ease concerns and fears.
"I'm now convinced a referral by the council is not in the best interest of finding a good solution," she says. "I am very happy we're spending more time getting to a proposal that if it is referred, by voters, will be a lot better."
She gave two reasons for her decision. The first is the complexity of the eventual proposal—and a concern that nuance and flexibility aren't a part of what happens at the ballot box. A referendum, she says, is "just yes or no," compared to a council discussion in which a "yes, but what if" vote that improves a proposal is possible. She also cited the arts tax. That was approved by voters and council shied away from improvements, like making the thing more progressive, because they worried about changing the will of the voters.
Fritz also floated her strong preference converting the residential street fee into a tax—so that it can be less regressive.
"I'd like to see that on the table," she says.
Novick, meanwhile, has posted a lengthy piece on his blog discussing the delay—and the relative benefits of surging toward a June 4 deadline—"focus," especially—even if that deadline had to slip to get the proposal in better shape. The post addresses his obvious crankiness with Fish over his concerns, especially involving low-income residents, but says a good idea may have emerged to address them: using the city's arts tax exemption to extend discounts to more low-income utility customers, across all utility bureaus.
But crankiness doesn't solve problems. It makes sense to delay a vote while we search for a way to make low income discounts fully accessible to people in multifamily housing. The difference between the proposed fully-phased in 'regular' multifamily fee of $7.05 per month and the proposed discounted fee of $4.93 per month is only $2.12 per month, but every dollar matters for someone living paycheck to paycheck.
And, although I'm not sure yet if it will work, I came up with an idea late Sunday night that I'm rather excited about. The City’s existing process with the arts tax allows people who are living below the poverty line send in some paperwork and get an exemption. Maybe we could use that process to provide rebates on water, sewer and transportation fees. You would send in your arts tax exemption form and get a check equal to the annual total of the utility fee discounts you're entitled to. I've asked Thomas Lannom in Revenue to think about whether we can make this idea work.