THE LAST TIME Portland's city commissioners found themselves in the same room talking about a plan to pay down the city's staggering backlog of transportation-related maintenance and safety projects, back in May, things didn't end so well.
Sharp and honest disagreements over policy and political strategy festered into something that felt personal and a little self-aggrandizing, whether that was the point or not. And even after the street fee was tabled—sent to citizen work groups for months of refinement and refashioning—weeks of sore feelings bled into all sorts of other business.
That revenue plan, still sponsored by Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales, finally made its way back to city council on Monday, October 13—for a late-afternoon "work session."
And, well, funny thing...
Just like the street fee's gone through some deep changes on its road out of policy purgatory (a new income tax for citizens, hopes the city will spend more of its general fund on transportation, and dramatically reduced fees for businesses), so has much of the rhetoric.
Halos and knives both stayed put during a two-hour session that felt respectful and serious—even as it put a fairly glaring spotlight on several lingering fault lines in the debate over transportation revenues. That was a welcome development for Novick, who still hopes to have a vote on the revenue plan by mid-November.
"There was less rhetoric and less contentiousness than I expected," he told me. "People took it very seriously and weren't taking any opportunities to grandstand about anything."
Real peace, however, will require a bit more work.
Something that hadn't been mentioned much before—whether the new money would help pay for improving some of the city's miles of unpaved streets—now appears to be front and center, thanks to Hales. Hales mentioned using a few million bucks explicitly to help slightly ease the burden on residents who'd still have to mostly front that work themselves.
Novick says that had always been a quiet idea, covered by the minuscule "other" category when officials were describing how the money might be spent.
"He's putting it back on the table," he says of Hales.
One of the biggest remaining rifts is the degree to which Portland's wealthiest residents—the lucky and hardworking stiffs making more than $500,000 a year—might have to pay up.
City staff, helping the citizen work groups by crunching numbers, came up with a $200 monthly cap as a way to buy lower rates for middle- and lower-income Portlanders. Novick supports that cap, even if he'd like to refine the tax brackets below $500,000 just a bit. And he's been joined by transportation and poverty advocates, and groups like AARP, all of whom have written letters correctly demanding as progressive a tax as possible.
Business groups and others, meanwhile, aren't big fans. Neither is the Oregonian's editorial board. Which all says plenty.
Hales, curiously enough, declared he'd prefer a $50 cap, seemingly a way to keep the rich from rebelling and trying to put the new street tax proposal on the ballot next spring.
"There may be a point where the rich go into armed revolt," says Novick. "I'm not convinced it's $200 a month."
And then there's the ballot question itself. Should any or all of this go before voters, now or ever?
Hales suggested it might be enough to stick in a sunset clause requiring a future city council, in six years, to weigh that question.
Before the hearing, as Willamette Week first reported, Nick Fish suggested splitting the ballot issue and revenue plan into separate votes. Novick pooh-poohed that. Fish could simply cast a principled vote against a combined ordinance, Novick says, and explain himself.
"I'm not a big fan," says Novick. Diplomatically, of course.
I'm told an actual draft could emerge before the next council meeting.