COMMISSIONER STEVE NOVICK was on message the morning of Monday, June 2, answering questions about whether his and Mayor Charlie Hales' plan to muscle part of a street fee through Portland City Council two days later was still proceeding apace in the face of great controversy.
"Steady as she goes," Novick emailed.
His hardy rhetoric was enduring, even after a brutal five-hour public hearing the week before, and even after a weekend that included increasingly stinging media coverage and calls and emails from aggrieved residents and business owners.
But it wasn't bulletproof. At the same time, according to sources in city hall, Novick and Hales were seriously mulling over a major announcement—putting the fee on ice, pending further discussion. And a day later, those whispers were confirmed.
On Tuesday, June 3, Novick and Hales officially declared that any votes on their "transportation user fee"—and the millions a year it would raise for paving and safety projects—will now wait until November. Nudged by their swing vote on the five-person council, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, they realized they needed more time to make changes and assuage the public—and maybe even restructure the entire idea.
"The last street free proposal in 2008 was derailed by a lobbyist filing a referendum petition," Novick said in a statement. "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."
The pell-mell rush toward this week's vote had been all about electoral math: Figuring lobbyists would revolt and send the fee to voters, Novick and Hales wanted the thing on the higher-turnout fall ballot, where it might get a better ride.
But the weeks of outrage and uncertainty—with complaints over a rushed public process swamping a vital debate on the dire straits of our transportation system—suggested that any political convenience would be canceled out by a fluoride-style backlash. And that realization only sharpened in city hall in the days before the delay was announced.
"Doing it right trumps the mechanics of doing it conveniently," Dana Haynes, the mayor's spokesman, told the Mercury. "November might have seemed convenient, but we probably didn't have all of our ducks in a row."
The announcement almost immediately dampened some unusually personal tensions on a council facing its first landmark, citywide policy push after 18 months.
First, Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman had annoyed Novick and Hales by publicly announcing, weeks ago, their opposition to a council vote. Novick, earlier this spring, withdrew his endorsement of Commissioner Dan Saltzman after Saltzman questioned not only whether the fee should go before voters, but also whether a fee was needed at all.
More recently, Fish and Novick lightly sparred over email and social media—trading back-and-forth references to Casablanca—after Fish raised procedural questions at the end of last month's public hearing.
Fish immediately applauded both Hales and Novick for pulling back. (Saltzman didn't return a message seeking comment that was left with his chief of staff.) Fritz also cheered the delay and the chance to make changes—even as she confirmed, for the first time, that whatever emerges this fall still won't head to voters unless they gather signatures and refer it to the ballot themselves.
"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."
Tuesday's announcement was the latest and loudest hiccup for the street fee proposal—something that's been receiving increasing heat since Novick first began shopping it back in April, after it emerged as the top, if tepid, choice in a telephone poll.
What looked like final details didn't formally emerge until May 22, two days after voters put down an attempt by industrialists to seize the city's water and environmental services bureaus.
Plans for an $8 to $12 monthly fee for residences had become plans for an $11.56 monthly fee, with discounts offered for low-income Portlanders and apartment dwellers. And we learned that some small businesses—along with school districts, regional governments, nonprofits, churches, and city bureaus—might pay thousands of dollars a year, based on calculations for how many trips they generate.
The fee—expected to take effect on July 1, 2015—would have raised up to $50 million a year, with the money split between paving projects and safety projects. (To fully catch up on deferred road maintenance, the city would actually need to spend $91 million a year for the next 10 years.) And, as Novick and Hales delighted in pointing out, the fee would have put Portland on par with 28 other Oregon cities that also have some sort of street fee.
But that was cold comfort for critics. Lobbyists like the Portland Business Alliance demanded a slowdown, and others watched warily.
Hundreds of business owners bombarded city hall with questions and rage and heartfelt angst that their monthly fees might force them to shut their doors. They argued with the city's numbers, and they felt hurried and blindsided by the push to vote this month. Groups like Central City Concern and Home Forward, the region's public housing agency, warned that six-figure fee payments could eat into funding for housing and homelessness programs.
Dozens of people brought the same message to city hall last Thursday, May 29, for what had been scheduled as the only public hearing on the final street fee proposal.
Novick and Hales made one major concession on the eve of that hearing. They announced a five-month delay to do more work on the nonresidential fee—declaring a November 14 deadline to pass both halves or drop the idea altogether.
And Novick and Hales, along with Fritz, offered another concession after the hearing began. Instead of charging the full residential fee starting next summer, it would be phased in over three years, from $6 to $9 and then $12.
Now, of course, both pieces of the fee have been pushed back until November—a discussion that began in the hours after the hearing, sources say, and lingered all through the weekend.
And when the fee and its two pieces come back, neither is expected to look the same.
Tuesday's announcement promised more public forums on the fee—and hinted at the potential for some deep structural changes.
Novick and Hales say they'll convene a pair of "working groups" to sift through concerns. One will be charged with ironing out kinks in how the fee would apply to businesses and other nonresidential uses.
The other will "look at the street fee as well as fees for other city utilities, including water and sewer, to see how well low-income residents are being served and how widely discounts can be applied," according to a city statement. Utility discounts are generally difficult to obtain for apartment dwellers, whose water bills are paid by their landlords. (A low-income apartment dweller would have paid about $2 less a month, under the original street fee plan.)
It's possible both work groups could toss out some bold ideas.
Novick, as the Mercury reported on Friday, May 30, has already floated devising a discount for businesses whose profits fall below a certain threshold. He's also discussed, in a blog post that went up about when the delay was announced, the relative merits of income or sales taxes—ideas that didn't poll as well as the street fee.
Fritz was clear she really wants to consider converting the residential fee into a "tax," so it can be more progressive and allow for income exemptions.
"I'd like to see that on the table," she told the Mercury.
Haynes, Hales' spokesman, said nothing's been ruled out yet—but that nothing's been ruled in, either. It's too early to say what might emerge, he says, and what might pass muster with the public and the rest of the council.
But no matter how the details evolve, Haynes says, the mayor isn't ready to send the fee to voters first.
"We don't vote whether or not to have a police and fire department," Haynes says, "and we don't vote to pay our utility and water fees."
Hales and Novick also say they'll soldier on, even if lobbyists do step up and knock down whatever plan comes forward—as threatened at the public hearing. Hales tried and failed to pass a fee in 2001, and then-Commissioner Sam Adams tried again in 2008. Novick says he won't wait that long to try again.
He also says he can't help but wonder if backing off from November—to build more support at the risk of facing a more conservative springtime electorate—might wind up a mistake. Novick offered a pair of examples: Portland Public Schools lost with a bond measure in May 2011, only to win in November 2012. And Fritz, running for re-election in 2012, did stunningly better in November than May.
"It's possible we might regret this," Novick says. "If we wind up on a May ballot and we lose by two points, then I'm going to be thinking, 'Dammit, we should have gone ahead.'"