“Street Car” Charlie wants new large Portland street tax


by Bob Clark
Taxpayer Association of Oregon

Public Hearing set for this Thursday, May 29th, 2 pm Portland Council Chambers

Mayor Charlie Hales (Street Car Charlie) and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick are seeking to impose a new street maintenance and safety tax on Portland water and sewer customers.  They seek to impose this tax through City Council vote, and not refer it to voters.  Under their proposal, home owners would be charged this new tax at a rate of $11.50 per month, via water and sewer bills.

The proposed amount of this new tax is excessive.

In 2008, Portland Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams with Council approval scheduled a measure for citizen vote which would have instituted a street maintenance tax at a rate of only $5 per month per home owner, via water and sewer bills (per newspaper account, this measure was subsequently canceled by Adams because of a faltering economy in mid-2008).  Since 2008, inflation has raised prices in general by 10%, such that Sam Adams’ original request in today’s dollars would only be $5.50, not the $11.50 now proposed.  Coincidentally, the Portland Transportation Bureau’s own documents show the average street tax imposed by other Oregon cities currently is only a tad over $5 per month per home owner.

There are very good reasons this new tax should only be levied if approved by Portland voters via referendum.  For one, it is rather large as it will amount to over $40 million per year in new tax revenue for the City of Portland.  Moreover, this proposed tax, in and of itself, would cause the average water and sewer bill to increase by approximately ten percent.

The Portland City Charter tries to limit City Council’s taxation powers, encouraging Council to gain voter approval via referendum before levying any new taxes.  Mayor Hales is attempting to side step the spirit of the Charter, by utilizing the utility and license fee powers granted Council.

For the past decade, a policy goal of Portland Council has been to spread utility fee charges equally among electric, natural gas and water/sewer utilities.  Hales and Novick’s street tax proposal effectively demolishes this policy goal.

I suspect the real reason for the size of the proposed street tax is to establish a long term funding scheme for maintaining the fairly new street car system, which serves mostly the downtown core.  Thus, “Street Car” Charlie’s new tax proposal might be more aptly named the Street (car) tax.

For more particulars on the street tax ordinance and its public hearing go to:  http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=26997 (under Thursday Agenda).