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October 5th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

The 10-year Solution

Backers of a local tax for schools want a 10-year income levy.

     
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When school officials from Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties meet this Friday, they'll be seeking an agreement to ask voters for approval of a 10-year income tax that spans three counties.

The thrust behind a 10-year tax is to provide financial stability, as opposed to the constant slash-and-beg cycle schools have engaged in after Measure 5's curb on tax revenues.

If you know any Portland teachers, you've probably already heard their anger at the consequences of Measure 5 and Salem's failure to deal with it. This year, some high-school class sizes are topping 40 kids.

You've also heard the fear, since things will get worse-much worse-next year. That's when $50 million disappears from the Portland schools budget-the equivalent of slashing 700 teachers or cutting 10 weeks of schools.

The situation has gotten so bleak that City Commissioner Randy Leonard says he has been practicing his responses to be ready for the "S-question" when he's out recruiting businesses for the region. "How are your schools?"

Says Leonard, "It's embarrassing to try to answer that question in the most positive way possible. It's like, 'Uh, they're really nice buildings: We invested in them a generation ago. Have I told you about the ocean? We have a really great ocean.'"

So local officials are trying to come up with a ballot measure that will stay the guillotine-or at least make it not cut so deep-when the voter-approved Multnomah County income tax for schools, public safety and social services runs out next year.

A 10-year income tax might sound like a pipe-dream for the 17 school districts meeting this Friday. But political consultant Mark Wiener, who is working with the schools group, says preliminary polling shows the idea has a chance. "The polling asked, 'Is there any way to get to yes' on this? And there was," says Wiener.

Polling also helped figure out what tax rate might be palatable: Currently, income-tax backers are talking about a rate that would translate to a $150 to $180 range each year for the average taxpayer in the three counties.

That's smaller than the $300-or-so average annual expense for the 1.25 percent income tax currently in place in Multnomah County.

Besides the details of the 10-year tax, perhaps the biggest question is whether to expand it beyond Multnomah County.

The advantage of including Washington and Clackamas counties would be to eliminate tax differentials among counties. The downside: dealing with Clackamas County's penny-pinching voting bloc, which could sink the whole thing.

The deciding issue in whether to go regional is whether school proponents can get all districts on board; currently two districts have expressed special concerns with the income-tax idea: Beaverton and Hillsboro. And North Clackamas is also wavering.

If everyone cannot agree, then the backup plan may revert to just a Multnomah County or even Portland-only measure.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips has said she wants the measure to go to voters in May, so that the new tax could be in place in time for the 2006-07 school year.

 
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