A heated public hearing over Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick's proposed Portland street fee turned to open electoral warfare this afternoon, as the head of the state gasoline lobby told city commissioners opponents would refer the proposed fee to voters.
"It will go to the ballot," said Paul Romain a lobbyist for the Oregon Petroleum Association. "Don't make us refer it."
The group Romain represents was centrally involved in defeating the last street fee proposed in 2008.
Romain's comments today came as both Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz submitted amendments to the rapidly-mutating proposal, both designed to make the fee on households more palatable.
Fritz's amendment would start the residential fee at $72 a year in 2015, while Hales' plan would start at $96 a year.
Both amendments would gradually rise the charge to $144 a year by 2017—making the annual cost $6 more annually than last week's proposal.
(UPDATE, 9 pm: Since both amendments passed, Fritz's plan will go forward. The fee will begin at $72 a year on July 1, 2015.)
The proposal remains in flux a day after Hales and Novick conceded to business pressure and delayed the side of the fee that would charge commercial properties, nonprofits and businesses.
Even as the proposal's details remained uncertain, Hales and Novick cemented their position—that the fee was unpleasant but necessary to catch up on a backlog of street maintenance.
"I see a future, 20, 30 years from now, when we have the streets of a third-world city," Novick said in his opening remarks. "We have too many places in the city where children walk to school in ditches."
Novick repeated his contention that he didn't like the form of the fee, which will charge the city's poorest citizens as much as $97 a year. But he said other taxes were even less popular—and risked upsetting "rich people" and special interests who would refer them to the ballot.
"We would lose 60-40," Novick said.
Hales began the hearing by reminding citizens that dozens of other cities had passed street fees without a public vote. But Commissioner Dan Saltzman gained applause by saying he would only support a plan sent to voters.
"Portlanders have shown they can make good decisions," Saltzman said.
A populist mood—more restrained than previous City Council hearings on water fluoridation, but no less hostile—dominated the hearing. Anti-tax activist Joe Walsh arrived dressed as Caesar. "Et tu, Novick?" he hissed during opening remarks.