LOCAL VOTERS—those who showed up, anyway—were in a generous spirit Tuesday.
Six months after Multnomah County’s support didn’t prove enough to save the corporation-taxing Measure 97, voters here went ahead and approved the largest property tax bond in state history—a $790 million behemoth that supporters say will lead to drastic improvements for Portland schools.
City voters also appeared primed to pass two measures that will tweak the Portland City Charter to provide more independence to the City Auditor’s Office and give officials ironclad authority to tax services like Airbnb.
The most important vote of the ballot, by far, was the schools bond, which was deemed victorious by the Oregonian as soon as the very first returns showed it leading with 61 percent of the vote.
The measure’s passage suggests that the Portland Public Schools (PPS) board wasn’t off base last year when it decided to delay a bond request it had planned for the November election in order to create more time to make a case to voters.
“We knew all along that Portland voters were supporting it,” said Jeremy Wright, the bond campaign manager, in the jubilant aftermath of the result. “The big question for us was who was going to come out and vote.”
With the new money, PPS promises much-needed fixes to a school system that has seen few positive headlines recently. The causes of a lead scandal that unfolded in 2016 would be wiped clean, the bond campaign says, with both hazardous water fixtures and lead-based paint removed (or covered, in the case of some paint). Roughly $324 million of the money voters approved will remove “lead, copper, asbestos and radon from all 90 PPS schools” according to the campaign.
The money will also pay for extensive renovations of Benson and Madison high schools, along with wholesale replacements of Lincoln High School and Kellogg Middle School.
But it might not stop there. The schools bond represents a big initial hurdle administrators believe sets the stage for improvements for decades to come. The $790 million bond will increase property taxes within the district by $1.40 per $1,000 in assessed value (not market value) for the next four years.
It would taper off after that, but schools officials have made no secret of the fact they’ll push for more money. The district has six bond measures planned over the next 30 years. The selling point? If voters renew those bonds, they won’t pay higher property taxes—just keep that same $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed value going in order to fund new improvements.
It wasn’t all schools on Tuesday.
The most pronounced victory of the night came in an unexpected place: Voters overwhelmingly approved, Measure 26-189, which will see Auditor Mary Hull Caballero’s office granted autonomy from a city government it’s charged with watching over.
Early returns showed the measure had nearly 85 percent of the vote.
Via changes to the City Charter, the Auditor’s Office will have more power to set its own hiring practices and contract with outside attorneys. It will also have a degree of budget independence it’s never had before.
Hull Caballero lobbied hard for those changes, saying that her employees are put into potential conflicts of interest because they frequently need the help of offices they’re also charged with critiquing.
“It’s a constant cloud over every transaction we’re involved in,” she told the Mercury in April. Her proposal ruffled some feathers in City Hall, but the measure, like the others on the ballot, had no significant opposition.
“If this holds up, obviously I’m very happy,” Hull Caballero said Tuesday evening
The auditor’s measure likely isn’t the only ballot item that will alter Portland’s central governing document. Voters also appeared likely approved Measure 26-194, which had nearly 59 percent of the vote in early returns.
The measure changes the charter language that gives Portland authority to levy a so-called “transient lodging tax” on hotels and similar businesses. It was necessary because the short-term rental platform HomeAway has refused to pay the city’s 6 percent tax—and even got a federal judge to agree the existing, four-decade-old language in the charter was inadequate to compel HomeAway to do so.
Now that the measure appears to have passed, the service can be brought to heel.
“I like our chances,” Commissioner Nick Fish, the measure’s reluctant sponsor from city council, said Tuesday evening. “I’m all for technological innovation, but people should play by the rules.”
In races for the PPS school board, candidates Scott Bailey, Julia Brim-Edwards, and Rita Moore all had healthy leads as of press time.
The off-year election appears to have garnered tepid interest. As of 5:30 pm Tuesday, the Multnomah County Elections Division had received ballots from less than 25 percent of registered voters, though the final tally will certainly be higher.
As the Oregonian noted, 25 percent is still higher than the 17.5 percent of voters who cast ballots in the May 2015 special election, which featured no high-profile ballot measures. Nearly 80 percent of voters turned out for November’s presidential election.
Wright, the manager for the schools bond campaign, thinks echoes of last fall’s vote—and its sinister outcome—played into his victory.
“We talked a lot about the national story and national conversations” ahead of this election, he said. “This was an opportunity to actually vote—the first ballot cast since November.”
Portlanders, he said, “understand why this matters.”