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Local Governments In Oregon Unsure On Tax Measures For May Ballot

<p>A Multnomah County elections worker sorts ballots.</p>

Nate Sjol

A Multnomah County elections worker sorts ballots.

In Pendleton, city leaders say they’ll no longer ask voters in May to approve a 4-cent city gasoline tax to help pay for local streets. But 150 miles west in Hood River County, officials are plowing ahead with a proposed property tax hike that would keep sheriff’s services intact.

In Salem, city officials abandoned a proposed payroll tax for local services. But in the Portland area, Metro is proceeding with a $248 million income and business tax in Oregon’s upcoming primary designed to reduce homelessness.

All around Oregon, local government and school officials are scrambling to figure out whether they can successfully ask voters for financial help when the economy is cratering from the coronavirus pandemic.

In January and early February, it looked like an ideal time to ask voters for money, thanks to record low unemployment and rising wages. But COVID-19 is quickly turning that into an iffy proposition as the May 19 primary election approaches. Voters will receive their ballots by the end of this month, when much of the economy is expected to still be shut down.

“My guess is this is going to be a very hard sell when unemployment is skyrocketing, businesses are failing,” said John Horvick, a pollster for Portland-based DHM Research.  “It’s hard to go to the voters at that time and ask for money.”

Nevertheless, more than 30 different local governments and school districts are pursuing tax measures next month.  In many cases, officials say it’s because they feel they have little choice.

Law enforcement and housing

“It’s just awful” that the county has to go to the ballot at this time, said Mike Oates, the chairman of the Hood River County Commission. “We need just to keep the basic safety procedures going for this county.”

Oates said the county is running out of reserve funds it had squirreled away years ago when it was still receiving large federal timber receipts. Now, without the additional property taxes of $160 a year for a median homeowner, the county faces cuts in sheriff patrols — or the need to reduce other county services that are newly burdened by rising poverty and the county’s first COVID-19 cases.

If this fails, Oates said, “we’ll be making cuts right away” for the new budget year that starts July 1.

In other cases, though, tax-measure supporters say they are making the case that government services are going to be more crucial in the wake of the pandemic.

“We need revenue more than ever” to provide services to reduce homelessness, said Angela Martin, interim executive director of Here Together. They are the coalition that put together the homeless services measurethat will go before voters in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Martin argued the epidemic and downturn threatens to worsen homelessness, and that the region needs to put programs in place to help with the post-COVID world. The Metro measure would levy an income tax on individuals earning more than $125,000 a year or joint filers earning more than $200,000, as well as a gross receipts tax on businesses with more than $5 million in annual sales.

“By putting this in place today,” she said, “we’re setting ourselves up for a decade-long recovery for those who have the least.”

However, opponents of the homeless measure said they are newly energized to fight the measures given the new economic realities.

“I think that the people are going to be shocked that the politicians want to raise taxes at a time when the economy is teetering towards catastrophe,” said Jason Williams, who heads the Taxpayer Association of Oregon. He’s mounting a campaign both against the homeless services proposal and the Portland measure extending the city’s 10-cent-a-gallon fuel tax.


In Lane County, backers of a $121.5 million bond for Lane County Community College also decided to go ahead with their campaign.

College board member Rosie Pryor said she realizes backers face a dilemma. On the one hand, voters might be more reluctant to approve money measures right now. 

At the same time, she added, “all of the other board members and volunteers who are working on this bond realize that LCC will be more important than ever before” in helping Lane County recover from the epidemic. She said the bond includes money to upgrade several programs needed to train technology and health care workers.

“Voters will have to truly think through,” Pryor added, “whether they feel that we are all going to come through this and normalize and get back on track in a fashion that is the same as before — or whether we have a lot of brand-new needs and requirements that we didn’t have when we went into this election.”

Other major educational measures include a $94 million bond measure for Roseburg Public Schools, a $75 million bond for the Canby School District and a $65 million bond for the Centennial School District. The Canby and Centennial districts are emphasizing that their measures will replace expiring bonds and thus not increase property taxes. The Roseburg tax proposal would be partially offset by a retiring bond.

Off the ballot or backing off

In at least a half-dozen cases, however, local measure backers decided it made more sense to back off. 

Pendleton Mayor John Turner said his community was already reeling from major flooding in early February when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Originally, “it looked like the ideal time” to pursue a fuel tax, he said, “and then, wham-o, in about six weeks you faced two very significant emergencies. … We need to be a little more sensitive to the plight of our citizens.”

The March 19 deadline for withdrawing a measure from the May primary had passed by the time its backers agreed not to go forward. As a result, the measure will stay on the ballot, but the group formed to support it is standing down. And Turner said that if it passes anyway, he will push to have its implementation delayed.

Several others did meet the withdrawal deadline. The Estacada and Sutherlin school districts both withdrew bond measures to upgrade schools. The City of Madras dropped a proposed 5 % tax on prepared meals. Bend dropped a transportation bond measure.

Salem had placed a controversial measure on the ballot to impose a payroll tax on workers to fund city services. Mayor Chuck Bennett said the idea was to get some financial support from the 60,000 people who flow into the city to work for state government and other associated endeavors.

But once the depth of the COVID-19–related shutdowns became clear, “it really, really made sense to pull back,” Bennett said.

Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley said officials in his county made the opposite calculation in deciding to move forward with a $13.4 million levy over four years to continue funding for the county jail. He said the county needs a “yes” vote to keep the jail open and pay for needed repairs. But the old levy doesn’t expire until the end of this year, so the county can back with another measure in November if voters reject this one in May.

“The reason we put it on now,” he said, “is really so we have different bites at the apple if it happens to fail.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.