No-win scenarios don't have to be no-win scenarios. Assuming you have the wits to change the rules binding that scenario before you lose. In the beloved Star Trek universe, that's how Captain James T. Kirk escaped the famed Kobayashi Maru test back when he was a feckless cadet.
And now, in the somewhat less-beloved universe of Portland City Hall, that's what Mayor Charlie Hales has just done to reset the conversation on the bedeviled street fee proposal he and Commissioner Steve Novick have been wrestling with since last spring. Last night, lacking a third vote for that proposal, Hales announced that he was scrapping half of the plan—a residential fee—in favor of a May 2015 advisory vote in which voters would be asked to choose which funding mechanism they'd prefer best.
Which means tonight's 6 pm hearing—a rare event in city hall—isn't about what we thought it'd be about. Instead of mostly hearing about a plan to levy an income-graded gas-consumptioj fee, Novick's last effort announced late last month, we'll be hearing about an income tax, a flat user fee, that same gas fee, and a straight-up gas tax. It'll still be a hard sell.
We've also heard about the need for new money—with Hales holding up copies of an audit from 2013 that damned the Bureau of Transportation for spending less on paving as it paid for bridges and light rail and streetcars, and the council for not spending more on transportation priorities as it spent on several other priorities and navigated budget cuts in recent years.
"I've brought copies in case anyone needs a refresher," Hales said.
The first speaker is Robert McCullough, a deep skeptic of the street fee, an economic consultant (google "Enron"), and president of the powerful group of Southeast neighborhoods known as SE Uplift. Keep reading! McCullough's group sued for supportive documentation, paying big bucks for it, and now that group won't sue anymore.
The business fee, deemed less controversial, isn't going to be scrapped. McCullough's poring through SE Uplift's analysis of that plan, all the same, detailing questions and identified potential inconsistencies. He wants PBOT's "transportation" section in its supporting documents to boot a tattoo parlor and include Union Pacific and an airline. He also says a colonic cleaning company run by three women is listed as the city's largest employer.
McCullough's point in chronicling errors is that those mistakes will wind up skewing revenue estimates and maybe require litigation.
"Obviously there'll be time now" to fix those glitches, Hales said, "before we take this back up." Hales says he hopes McCullough would volunteer his time—and Novick joked that PBOT's new year's resolution was "to spend more time" with McCullough.
After that, the business fee was referred back to Novick's office. It will come back and be paired with whatever other measure emerges.
Hales says he only wants people to talk about which revenue option they're for, or that they want to vote on. He doesn't want to hear about which ones people don't like—they can campaign against that one. And if you have general budget concerns?
"If you're concerned about how we spend the transportation dollars we already have ... that is not the subject of tonight's hearing," Hales said, reminding everyone that the budget forums this spring are a great place to have that discussion.
Whatever makes the ballot will have to raise the $23 million the scrapped residential/fee tax would have raised. Hales also said the plans floated in May won't need to have every detail fleshed out. They'd need to know how what rate structure each tax or fee would contain, for example, but not details. Hales also seems to be foreclosing on a blend of approaches, which has been suggested before, dismissing a bicycle registration fee as incapable of raising $23 million.
"What we're asking you tonight is what you're for."
Novick's also mentioned a property tax bond, floated by the Oregonian's editorial board and a sales tax, which he says would be deeply unpopular.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz asked Hales to clarify whether he planned to hold a meeting, as he's discussed with his colleagues, on Tuesday, January 20. That would be when plans for the ballot would be firmed up. In somewhat good news, some 27 people have signed up to testify—many fewer people than in past hearings.
McCullough's back up briefly. He's leaving for his anniversary dinner, "with a much more beautiful person."
Fritz just clarified again that the plan in May is to refer several ballot items, not a list of suggestions on one ballot item.
Gary Sargent, the second speaker, just invoked a recent audit of the streetcar system as proof people lack trust in how government funds transportation. "PBOT has serious issues in reading that audit," he says. "That's very concerning as a business man."
He suggested a payroll tax—which Hales wasn't terribly quick to embrace while noting that it's been a major revenue source for Trimet. Sargent also thanked the council for agreeing to work with McCullough.
Craig Rogers, another frequent street fee critic/city hall visitor, was quick to come back with what he's "for": He wants a vote, not city council action, on whatever emerges. And a sunset provision. He also wants money for unpaved streets. Hales asked him which method he preferred, and Rogers said he wants a gas tax.
Fritz asked him if he'd like to see whatever came back from the advisory vote to then go back before voters again all by itself. "Yes I would."
Frequent city hall visitor Joe Walsh says the council should just screw up its courage and pick something that's honorable and put it before voters on its merits. He knows the city needs to pave its roads. But an advisory vote?
"An advisory vote is toilet paper," he said. "That's what it is. It's useless. Unless you have to go to the bathroom."
Drink for your first "what we have here is a failure to communicate."
This same fellow, reading from carefully written and lyrical remarks, is also describing bicyclists as "kamikazes" and he wants us all to know that "bicyclists are not royalty." He wants bike fees as "part of a total funding package"—and he wants to hold the lack of that fee over riders' heads with a promise not to build any more bike infrastructure.
A woman is "for the city having some skin in the game." Hales is challenging her about the guidelines he sketched out. She doesn't want Barbur Boulevard improvements or light rail. "Why don't you just put some things on hold? Why do citizens have to pay for this again." Her property taxes are more than $8,000 a year.
Additional money for streets without new revenue, it should be mentioned, would have to come from the parks bureau, the police bureau, the fire bureau, the housing bureau. Fritz is reminding her that the $4 billion budget for the city includes utility funds. The general fund is $400 million, Fritz notes.
"But we all know you made exceptions when voting for Randy [Leonard's] cockamamie things," the woman says.
"We don't get to revisit the past," Hales says. "Look at our budget, tell us what to cut, and tell us what you'd like to spend more on."
Another speaker wants to talk about how money for streets would be spent more than on which mechanism is best. He lives on 130th just off Powell Boulevard, and he's grateful that "safety projects" have been a large part of the conversation. But then he says what he wants most: a "progressive income tax."
"People who can afford to pay for these services need to pay for these services," he says. "People making $9.15 an hour can't afford to be nickel-and-dimed with user fees and gas taxes."
Next is someone who doesn't "buy the premise of your question" that we need money. He says PBOT Director Leah Treat shouldn't make any more money than the same job in Chicago, which is bigger. And he's dubious about a posted job in which PBOT's seeking to pay as much as $100,000 for communications director. He also doesn't trust Hales with his tax dollars after hearing that Hales' office's diversity training last year was done at a resort (which is true!) and not somewhere pedestrian in town.
He wants an option on the ballot in which people can just say they want the city to cut money and "this is not okay."
"Let's try cutting something. Let's cut from the streetcar. Let's see if people desire it."
Ann Sanderson, the salon owner who runs Stop the Street Fee, reminded everyone that the city already did a poll last year asking which options were popular and which weren't. And, after that, the city convened working groups to refine something based on that work.
She asks why a straightforward campaign was too expensive but an advisory vote isn't. She says don't do anything. She's not anti-tax, "I'm anti-bad tax.... Until you come up with something that works, you should vote for nothing at all."
Hales asks what Sanderson's suggestion is. She doesn't have one. "Now you're punting. And punting's not good enough for a leader."
Hales says the city's been punting for 14 years. Sanderson says she spent her summer on a working group. "You only want to hear what you want to hear." She says everyone ignored her ideas months ago. Hales said to "please send them."
The speaker after Sanderson wonders why we can't have a question in May asking voters, also advisory, whether they want to formally bless whatever wins the popularity contest. He wants a gas tax. Hales says the numbers aren't firm, but could be as high as 20 cents a gallon.
Novick says it could be 13 cents, depending on whether Multnomah County would waive existing revenue-sharing agreements for the new revenue or not.
Hales is finally asked how much a special election might cost. Depending what else is on the ballot, he says, it'll cost $100,000 to $300,000. The election will already have Portland Public Schools and some other races.
He also says he was told today that the Goldschmidt administration once did an advisory ballot.
Fish asked if the cost would be far lower if the city waited until a dense ballot like November 2016's. Hales says that would be the case.
What if the results in May are inconclusive, Fish asks. That's likely, and anticipated by Hales' office. The same speaker says he'd support a "cocktail" of mechanisms, as Fish puts it.
Hales is back to the audit, pointing out to one speaker that the city's longterm spending on paving has been in decline. And he's quibbling with a 2009 decision, since rescinded, to focus money on arterial streets and not residential streets. He then walked over to the speaker and handed over a copy—a moment I better see on the news tonight.
Fish is asking if Portland's unique in its crumbling state. Novick says we're not. Los Angeles came short, he says, of the two-thirds threshold California requires for revenue measures. Novick also mentions the decision in the 1980s to divert utility license fee from transportation to other bureaus, like parks, to offset Measure 5's effects on property taxes. Hales remembered that the hope in Measure 5 was that Oregonians might finally approve a sales tax. [crickets]
And how about the gas tax—which has grown "less robust," as Fish notes, thanks to conservation and fuel efficiency gains. He's not picking a side yet, he says. But he's airing a legitimate concern when it comes to relying on a local gas tax to pay for funding.
"The primary revenue source has not kept pace with inflation," Fish says, explaining why the city's asking for revenue.
"We've been having this discussion in the city of Portland for 14 years," Hales says, recounting failed attempts to persuade Salem to raise the state gas tax and failed attempts (by Hales in his commissioner incarnation and Sam Adams in his) to levy a local street fee. "We've not been totally unaware of this problem. We have been unwilling to face it squarely."
A list of "should we stop wasting money" questions. On things like bubble curbs, speed bumps, bike lanes, urban renewal, the planning bureau, energy effiency, etc. Some of those things, except for urban renewal, were equated with danger and lost lives. The rest were equated with cronyism and corruption and waste.
Next, though, someone follows the rules of a sort, saying what he's "for." It's the fellow who comes to all of these meetings suggesting Chicagoland-style city registration stickers that would put on windshields.
Revenue from the Chicago City Vehicle Sticker Sales Program funds the repair and maintenance of more than 4,000 miles of Chicago streets.
All Chicago residents using his or her vehicle in the City must have a Chicago City Vehicle Sticker, regardless of where the vehicle is registered. Failure to do so can result in a minimum $200.00 ticket and additional fees. Tickets can be issued every day until vehicle is in compliance with the Wheel Tax.
Motorcycles and mopeds are also required to pay the “Wheel Tax.” The City Clerk’s Office sells special motorcycle medallions that must be affixed to the rear license plate. These are only sold at City Clerk Offices and online.
Vehicle stickers are valid upon purchase, meaning when you get your new vehicle sticker, remove your old sticker and replace it with the new one. Your expiration month and year is printed on your vehicle sticker.
Vehicle stickers expire on the final day of the expiration month.
Fish says the council should probably explain the advice it's been given. It's been construed as like a vehicle registration fee, and "we're preempted from doing a vehicle registration fee. Only the county can do it. It's an elegant solution in my mind."
Hales says it might be worth getting a "formal opinion" on whether Portland could do it all the same.
"I'd like to be sure it's something we can do," says Novick, explaining it wouldn't be good enough if "the city attorney's office says it's a crazy idea but that it just might work."
"Let's get a good solid look at it," says Hales.
Fish presses someone complaining about trust to stop being negative and offer up a solution. He's now done that as much as Hales has—gestures that seem to be trying to put up a tent around the entire council moving forward instead of just three commissioners.
The speaker, Hiram Asmuth, says he might like a vehicle tax, then.
Asmuth asks why the city's out to take over state-managed roads like Powell and 82nd, which Hales calls "orphan highways" in the city. Hales says Market downtown and Sandy have both been converted before and that it makes sense for safety and livability reasons. But first he wants ODOT to put those roads in good shape first—maybe through a higher state gas tax. Powell alone will cost millions to fix up, Hales says.
"That's the theory," Hales says. "There's been a huge hue and cry from neighbors" upset that ODOT wants to treat potential main streets "like a state highway."
Fish brings up the Multnomah County-controlled Willamette River bridges, which Adams tried to talk about taking over a few years back.
"We couldn't do any worse than ODOT on a couple of these roads," Fish says. "We shouldn't have multiple players providing basic services."
A lot of speakers are receiving free dispensation to go over their allotted three minutes, in light of the back and forth with commissioners on policy points and questions.
Novick found the email from the city attorney's office explaining why, in that attorney's mind, a vehicle tax is too much like a pre-empted vehicle registration fee. The following words stuck out in state law: "The recording of a vehicle for use within a jurisdiction."
Fish and Hales both insisted on taking a fresh look at the vehicle sticker all the same.
Fritz defended the city's budgeting by noting that her bureau, which just saw a successful bond renewal last fall, also has endured cuts and deferred maintenance.
"It's not just transportation which doesn't have enough money," says Fritz. The parks bond is worth some $68 million, but that's "$68 million out of $365 million."
After that, an elderly homeowner is complaining about his rising property tax bill, and his confusion about things like compression and decompression. "And I'm a former Navy diver, so I know something about decompression."
The speaker says he maybe likes a gas tax, but worries it won't capture people who live on the edges of the city and can fuel up just over the border. "Somehow they should contribute." Fish agreed that's one of the problems with the gas tax, for the second time publicly identifying a flaw with that mechanism. Which means? If it somehow comes out on top this spring, he probably won't be going along with Novick and Hales' promise to back the top choice.
The same guy says he also over-paid his arts tax as a PERS retiree. Revenue Director Thomas Lannom handed him his card at Fish's urging. He says he doesn't mind paying it, because he likes the arts. "I don't want the money back. I think everybody ought to pay."
TMI? Maybe? Too bad. I just got back from a bathroom break. I'm listening to a woman quibbling with the business fee documents and how home-based businesses would fare. Earlier, she apparently asked why PBOT and government utilities don't maintain a central database to avoid expensive conflicts. Fish is complimenting Novick for getting that work done, at least with the city's water and sewer utilities.
Novick says PBOT director Treat is actually leading on that. And, he notes, small home-based businesses with $50,000 less in revenue are already exempt. Fritz told the speaker her issues, raised in email, were very, very helpful.
The next speaker reluctantly endorses a property tax increase. "It's painful. But I don't mind paying taxes if I get services."
We seem to be down to the final speakers. First up among the likely last three is the new president of the Hollywood Boosters. (He's also on the board of Venture Portland, the umbrella group for the city's official neighborhood business districts.)
He thinks the income tax would have the "less impact" on people on fixed incomes. He's not pitching that in his official capacities. But he'd like to see the income tax coupled with efforts to bring TriMet and other government partners into the conversation. Or maybe some discussion about getting neighborhood to pay for local improvement districts to pay for road increases in their immediate areas.
"The businesses that have terrible roads, they could make a push to raise the revenue to improve their roads," he says. "That could be a win-win for all parts of the city."
The next speaker asks what the criteria will be for choosing which option will the one chosen after the vote. Will it be the one with the most votes?
Hales says "that's the basic idea."
Fish says "each of us will give it the weight we think is appropriate. The harder question is what happens when" none of the items wins majority support. That was the speaker's real issue, he says. Fish says that's why it's just an "advisory vote." The speaker favors a fee based on road wear.
Now comes the last speaker, who lives "on 16th and Ash, in Southeast." He says the sewer projects near his home sometimes reflected good work, but otherwise "ruined" things. Fish, noting the joint work between BES and PBOT, asks if the man might give him specifics after the meeting. "If there's substandard work, I'd like to know about it."
The man says "the other issues I have are futuristic issues." Honda, he says, is coming up with new fuel systems using hydrogen, further hobbling the gas tax. And studded tires. Ditch 'em. Hales says the council has beseeched Salem for more local control on limiting their use.
"They cause a huge amount of damage," says Hales, lamenting the "trenches" they create in overtaxed highways.
Novick says studded tires maybe cause $5 million in damage in Portland, out of $40 million statewide.
Given the "last word," the man say let's not have a "hodgepodge" of ideas. "Let's keep this as simple as possible."
Except he's not the last speaker. One more speaker, Lightning, comes up. He gets Novick to smile by referencing a Billy Preston song "Will It Round in Circles." Lightning says the city should hire McCullough as a consultant.
Novick and Hales both joke that the city can't afford his rates... but Hales allows that McCullough, as SE Uplift president, might be willing to volunteer his expertise a little bit more than he has. Lightning just doesn't want any litigation.
Novick promises "we won't bill any businesses based on the estimates we've made." If the city adopts the fee, Novick promises, businesses would have to submit all kinds of new information they hadn't previously submitted, meaning there's an excellent chance that actual tax billings would reflect actual and accurate data.
"Even with what we're asking for, we're not even stopping the bleeding," Novick says when asked why the city doesn't consider asking for less money.
Hales says he wants to refer the fees to Novick's office and wants to come back the week of the 20th, so in two weeks, with language for a resolution or resolutions on the language for whatever advisory ballot questions the council decides. It's all over now. Meeting adjourned.