Last week's lengthy Portland City Council hearing on a proposed "transportation user fee," AKA "TUF," turned extra tense sometime in the middle of its fifth hour.
That's when Commissioner Nick Fish pressed the fee's sponsors—Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales—on how he might offer some suggested changes before this Wednesday's vote, only to find out that Novick and Hales weren't much interested in entertaining those changes. Undeterred, the next day, Fish emailed Novick a list of 11 questions that, at first, drew a snarky response—before giving way to a more substantial conversation on Fish's concerns (and several other issues raised by critics) alongside declarations of peace and love and renewed mutual goodwill.
This morning, Novick sent reporters (us, Willamette Week, the Tribune, and the O) a longer, point-by-point reply to Fish's questions. And maybe things have cooled a bit. Or maybe not.
Novick addressed his reply to "Captain Renault," making the point that the city's sewer and water commissioner, Fish, is somehow "shocked, shocked" that low-income Portlanders are struggling with utility bills.
"I think it's appropriate," Novick says.
UPDATE 4:45: Fish sportingly acknowledged Novick's Casablanca tweak, reminding Twitter this afternoon how the movie ends.
Novick's answers are on the jump.
1. The impact of the proposed fee on low-income renters, particularly those with federal vouchers.
The amount of the fee for each category of resident is listed in attachment C. We hope to extend the low-income discounts to as many low-income residents as possible. As you know, it is administratively difficult to make such discounts accessible to renters, especially in multifamily housing. You know this because the Bureau of Environmental Services does not provide such discounts in multifamily housing at all. You and I have now agreed that we will work together to try to make discounts for all utility bureau fees available to all low-income Portlanders.
I have an idea that I hope you will think worth exploring. People below the poverty line can apply for an Arts Tax exemption. How about having people apply for a utility bill rebate at the same time? Anyone entitled to an arts tax exemption gets a check equal to what the annual utility bill discount is supposed to be. I am not certain that would work but I’m going to ask Thomas Lannom about it.
2. The adequacy of discounts generally, and the availability of waivers, for low-income individuals and families.
The amounts are listed in the ordinance. I am not sure what you mean by ‘adequacy.’
As to waivers, the City Attorney's office is concerned that if we completely waived the fee based on income, we would run a significant risk that the fee would be judged a tax, which would put us into Arts Tax territory with PERS exemptions, etc.
3. The decision to bifurcate the ordinances on [sic] a residential and non-residential fee.
The nonresidential fee is more complex and requires further discussion. In addition, the ‘business community’ is not uniform and will have some conflicting interests; it is my fear that without some sort of deadline, the various business groups may never reach any collective conclusion as to what an acceptable structure might be. It is my hope that if they know that "the residential fee is already passed, the city has set a deadline to resolve this fee, this is really happening," it will create pressure to come to something of an agreement.
4. The text and purpose of the Mayor’s proposed ballot referral.
It has been filed. I believe it speaks for itself.
5. An analysis of whether it should include a sunset clause or any other triggers.
The analysis is that we expect the need for street maintenance to continue indefinitely. It would be misleading to include a sunset.
6. The proposed composition of the oversight committee and the selection process.
The language of the ordinance speaks for itself.
7. The financial impact of the fee on the faith community and nonprofits.
The ITE trip generation manual incudes trip calculations for houses of worship. The impact on nonprofits will vary depending on how many trips a given nonprofit generates. Houses of worship and nonprofits are generally not exempt from paying for utilities. I do not recall any discussion of the impact of water and sewer rate increases on houses of worship or nonprofits.
8. The cost to City bureaus.
We will provide you a list.
9. Whether and how parking lots should be included.
The ITE manual does not count parking lots as destinations, so it does not assign them trips. We believe that we should adjust that treatment to reflect trips by employees of parking lots. We will determine a way to do so.
10. The value of either an administrative cap or annual audits (modeled after the Children’s Levy).
The children's levy is simply a means of passing money to other organizations. The purpose of the children's levy administrative cap (as far as I can tell) is to limit the number and salaries of the people who pass out the money. The money is then transferred to other organizations. I presume that those other organizations - like most organizations, public and private - have administrative expenses of around 15% of total costs. But the Children's Levy ordinance does not purport to limit the administrative costs of the organizations that actually receive the funds.
In this case, the money will be injected into the bloodstream of an existing organization, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which has an existing administrative structure.
There will be certain additional costs related to the implementation of the TUF:
(a) We will need to have capacity to administer the low-income discounts. Since you and I are now planning to try to do something the City has never done – extend discounts to apartment renters – we do not know in advance how complex that will be.
(b) We will need staff to work with businesses to help determine which "trip generation" category they fit into. We will work to make the categories as user-friendly as possible, but I would not want to put an arbitrary restriction on the amount of customer service we provide to small businesses. We will consult with other cities, such as Medford, that have such fees, to plan our staffing.
(c) We also need to have a mechanism for collecting the funds. There will be costs associated with that, which of course we will strive to keep to a minimum. The simplest and cheapest method would be to put the TUF bill on the water and sewer bill - an idea that the Commissioner for those bureaus has summarily rejected. (I note that the Children’s Levy uses the existing property tax system to collect its funds.)
As to audits, the funds will become part of PBOT’S existing budget, just as sewer rate increases become part of BES’ existing budgets. If the City moves to a system of requiring annual audits of each bureau, PBOT would of course be subject to such a system.
11. Impacts on small business.
The effect on any given business will depend on how many trips the ITE trip generation manual (with whatever modifications we may make to the manual’s formulas) assesses for that type of business and on the number of square feet. In other words, the effect will vary, just as the effect of water and sewer fees on small businesses vary depending on how much water and sewer services they use.