Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick will try to charge Portland households $138.72 a year without taking their "street fee" proposal to voters, they announced this morning.
The fee, which City Council will vote on June 4, is expected to raise $40 million in the first year for city transportation projects, with proceeds rising as high as $50 million. But city officials still haven't decided how they will collect it.
The announcement confirms that Hales and Novick will attempt to avoid placing the fee on the November ballot. Instead, they will try to put up a political shield against a ballot referral by asking voters to approve restrictions on how the money can be spent—on road maintenance and transportation safety.
Hales and Novick announced what they dubbed a "transportation user fee" at a press conference by turns apologetic and defiant.
"None of us want to be doing this," Novick said. "If the voters are really mad at us, we're both up for reelection in 2016, and they can throw us out."
The fee, which Hales and Novick have been shopping for months, will charge low-income households $97.08 a year. It offers further discounts for people living in apartment buildings.
The proposal also creates a sliding fee scale for businesses, nonprofits, churches and other governments—some of whom could pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. (Parking lots and railway yards get the only exemptions, which would pacify downtown land owner Greg Goodman and railroad giant Union-Pacific.)
"We think this is the least obnoxious option," Hales said.
The mayor said he didn't know if business interests would refer the fee to the ballot, as they did to scuttle a similar proposal by Sam Adams in 2008.
"I think they understand that the problem is not going away, " Hales said. "We're all in this together. Any of us can see the problem, even if we're not happy about the solution."
The Portland Bureau of Transportation has debuted a fee calculator for businesses to figure out how much they'll pay. The business side of the fee is based on the square footage of the property and the number of trips generated to that location.
The proposal needs three votes on City Council. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have said they'll vote no, leaving Commissioner Amanda Fritz as the tiebreaker.
Hales said this morning he believes he has secured Fritz's support. But she did not appear at the press conference, held under a blooming tree swarming with bees.
The gathered officials said they were still trying to decide how to collect the fee—mentioning water and sewer bills as the leading option. (City Hall kept control of its utilities in a public vote Tuesday.)
Hales said Portland could no longer afford to delay on paving roads and building safe crosswalks.
"This is one of those times where we as elected officials have to step up and do a difficult thing," the mayor said. "If we punted every difficult decision to the voters, nothing difficult would ever get done."
UPDATE, 10:45 am: The street fee proposal has already lost the support of one newspaper editorial board. Bi-weekly newspaper Street Roots is opposing the fee.
"It's being sold as a safety issue, but the fee is largely to back fill maintenance costs," says the editorial board. "We cannot support a flat fee of this size with no end in sight that will disproportionately hurt low-income families and small businesses regardless of their use on the roads."