Multnomah County Library bond
For years, the Multnomah County Library has been among the jewels of local public services. Circulation is the fourth-highest of any library system in the country and patrons are regularly turned away from children's story hour and other popular amenities because the library's buildings are mostly small and outdated, lacking meeting room and quiet spaces. On a square-footage basis, the system is 102nd in the nation.
The current system is also inequitable and shortchanges those who need library services the most. About 40% of the county's population lives east of Portland's 82nd Avenue, but only about 20 percent of the library's capacity is there. In addition to books, movies and reference materials, libraries provide community gathering spaces, a partial bridge over the digital divide, and numerous skill-building opportunities, such as résumé workshops.
This measure would allow the county to issue $387 million in general obligation bonds to build a new flagship library in Gresham, renovate seven other library branches, add gigabit-speed internet to all libraries, and add mechanical sorting equipment for books and other library materials. The added cost for the owner of a home assessed at the median value in the county ($201,000) would be about $123 a year.
The county is asking for a lot of money, but like our schools and roads, libraries are essential infrastructure that require regular investment to keep up with population growth and changing demands.
After the Wapato Jail debacle, in which the county spent heavily on capital improvements but made no provision for operating costs, the library staff and planning committee have taken into account the annual cost of staffing and maintaining the new and renovated space this measure would buy. They have made a case that operating costs would add 5% or less to the current operating budget, a figure library management says is well within the system's capacity to absorb. We urge a "yes" vote.
Portland parks levy
The condition of Portland's beloved parks system is such an obvious cautionary tale, it feels like one of Aesop's fables. Say, the one about the grasshopper who didn't prepare for winter.
For a decade, city officials ignored chronic financial problems and expanded the parks system eastward, giving Portlanders more places to romp in the sunshine. Put simply, the expenses of Portland Parks & Recreation, mostly personnel, have regularly exceeded its revenues, which are a mixture of general fund dollars and user fees.
Then winter hit—and hard.
Before his untimely death in January, City Commissioner Nick Fish was intent on addressing the parks bureau's chronic shortfalls. But then COVID-19 arrived, shutting down the programs that generate those user fees. Fish forced City Hall to make painful, unpopular cuts to beloved community centers—and then unforeseen disaster meant the fees that account for 27% of parks revenues evaporated, because all the programs closed.
The past seven months of enforced separation have highlighted more than any politician's words ever could the vital importance of having public space for city residents to exercise, recreate or just chill during the pandemic. Portland's parks, which cover more than 11,000 acres and include more than 470 facilities, are essential for a town that is increasingly taking on the trappings of a real city.
Portland Parks & Rec is responsible for 1.2 million trees and a growing system of green spaces that reflects a long-overdue expansion of parks in East Portland. Yes, there are undoubtedly efficiencies the bureau might realize, and yes, there are big ideas to reimagine the city's third-largest general fund bureau (after police and fire).
But the reality is this: Portlanders need our parks today more than ever. With no certainty about when a COVID-19 vaccine will allow the resumption of programs that drive fee income, the bureau faces draconian cuts if this measure fails. We're talking about emptying trash cans and cleaning restrooms once a week rather than daily. We're talking the closure of pools and facilities that help keep us healthy and calm. If the measure passes, it would add 80 cents per $1,000 of assessed value per year to property taxes, adding $161 a year in taxes to a home with the median assessed value in Multnomah County of $201,000. That's less than a cup of 7-Eleven coffee a day—a small price to pay for sanity. Vote yes.
Tax to fund tuition-free preschool
First and foremost: Preschool for All is a feminist measure. That was one of the final arguments offered to WW by Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Peterson, the idea's leading elected champion. It was also the most persuasive.
Studies show that COVID-19 layoffs and job losses are disproportionately affecting women. In part, that's because many blue-collar mothers are having to choose between income and child care. Or, more bleakly, they must pick among rent, groceries and child care.
So the county proposes to pay for preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. That's something several places, including New York City, already do.
This measure took an unusual path to the ballot. For the better part of a year, the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America competed with Vega Pederson and county leaders; both had proposals for tuition-free preschool they hoped to send to voters this November. Ultimately, Vega Pederson forged an unprecedented solution: County commissioners passed, then repealed, the DSA measure and sent to voters a compromise measure that combined the DSA's and county's wishes.
And the tax they picked? It makes the plan all the more populist.
The measure would tax 1.5% of taxable income over $200,000 for joint filers ($125,000 for single filers) with another 1.5% on income over $400,000 for joint filers ($250,000 for single filers). The county says 92% of residents would not be taxed at all.
That, of course, is the best kind of tax for most voters—one that somebody else pays. The policy includes concepts too numerous to be unpacked here: progressivity and the redistribution of wealth, to begin with. But we don't buy the objections of tax foes that this burden would cause wealthy residents to flee to Clark County.
It's worth noting that proponents expect this measure to raise a significant sum—$133 million next year and more than $200 million by 2026, when the program expects to have added 7,000 children to the program. While preschool programs will be reimbursed between $14,000 and $20,000 a child, the measure has set aside a sizable sum for set-up, administration, quality controls and reserve funds among other costs, which backers will need to justify as they move forward.
Multnomah County would distribute the money to existing preschool programs. The first recipients of tuition aid would be families with the least means for securing a private spot now. The county's record on contracting for social services is spotty, to put it kindly, but we're comforted to see that it plans to phase in the program—the "universal" part of universal preschool won't happen for a few years, as the county scales up its contracts.
As advertising floods the airwaves to boost this measure in coming weeks, mostly you'll hear about the kids. (Who can vote against the kids?) But caring for children is a struggle for entire families and, given gender roles in 2020, that means mostly a struggle for mothers. That struggle has long compromised women's ability to advance in the workplace. And right now we're seeing how it cripples women's ability to hold down a job.
Vote yes for women (and also for kids).
Portland Public Schools bond
This is the one tax on the ballot this November that won't increase anyone's tax bill. (Instead, it would just renew the $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value homeowners are already paying. That's $503 a year on a home with the median value in Multnomah County of $201,000.) And the $1.2 billion it would raise over the next eight years is badly needed.
The big-ticket items are completing the overhaul of Benson Polytechnic High School and revamping Jefferson High School, both of which are unreinforced masonry buildings, the type of construction most at risk of collapse in an earthquake.
No one doubts that Portland Public Schools' aging structures continue to need work as part of a cycle of upgrading buildings, many of which were built in the middle of the past century or earlier.
And the $1.2 billion is only a down payment: PPS is asking for just a fraction of what's needed to make classrooms safe. The measure includes $17 million to upgrade buildings to be seismically sound when more than $1 billion is needed; $34 million of the more than $100 million needed to upgrade schools to a basic level of accessibility for disabled people; and $66 million for the more than $300 million the district needs for roofs.
To be sure, the district has failed to do the politically difficult work of redrawing boundary lines for the Jefferson building that currently serves fewer than 700 students. (Both Cleveland and Wilson high schools currently serve more than twice as many students and have not been renovated.)
The last bond issue in 2017 saw major cost overruns. The district and board president Amy Kohnstamm, who led that effort, were held to account after an inaccurate assessment of how much the projects would actually cost. (The rest of the School Board is new since then.)
But the students who will return to these buildings after the pandemic deserve better, safer spaces in which to learn. The bond campaign says the district learned from mistakes made last time and will have multiple layers of cost estimation in place this time.
The fundamental request is sound: Old buildings wear out and we as taxpayers should replace them. Vote yes.
Establishes police oversight board
Are you a Portland police officer who just hit somebody with a baton? If so, you probably love the city's current police oversight system, which has resulted in just four cops going to arbitration after losing their jobs for misconduct in the past decade. (All four got their jobs back.)
Nearly everyone else in the city is frustrated by the status quo. That even includes people who have worked for the city's Independent Police Review, a division of the City Auditor's Office that doesn't actually have the power to discipline or fire officers. Instead, whenever it receives a complaint, IPR judges the officer's conduct based on the Portland Police Bureau's existing policies—which allow the use of force in many situations—and passes along its conclusion: The complaint is either sustained or it's not. If sustained, the findings are forwarded to the police chief, who decides what punishment—if any—should be leveled. Meanwhile, the investigative documents—including the officer's name—are almost never released to the public. It is an understatement to say the city's current system is designed to protect police, not the public.
Measure 26-217 reads like, if you'll pardon the metaphor, a silver bullet. It seeks to dissolve IPR and replace it with a new police oversight board staffed by diverse community members, none of whom may be employed by law enforcement or have immediate family members employed by law enforcement. It would be funded by 5% of the Police Bureau's current $230 million budget—a percentage enshrined in the city charter, meaning the charter would need to be amended to change the board's budget.
Measure 26-217, referred to voters by a unanimous vote of the Portland City Council, would give the new oversight board real power: the authority to subpoena documents, compel officers under investigation to testify, and share investigative findings—including the names of officers found culpable—with the public. Most importantly, it would have the power to discipline and even terminate officers. IPR can do none of those things.
Portland City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees IPR, is skeptical of the measure. She has said it hasn't been vetted thoroughly and the same barriers IPR runs into would also hobble the new oversight board.
We aren't totally convinced, either, that the new board can accomplish its goals. It would surely face legal challenge by the Portland Police Association, whose president, Daryl Turner, has alleged many aspects of the measure are illegal. And for it to be fully successful, the state's arbitration laws regarding police officer misconduct must be amended at the Legislature—a process guaranteed to be lengthy and convoluted.
But City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty—a longtime police reformer who is championing the measure—feels confident the goals can be achieved within an 18-month time frame allotted for implementation. Hardesty says policies set forth for the oversight board, unlike IPR's, would be enshrined in the city charter, granting the board legal authority to enforce its policies.
We want this to work, and we hope it does. If it achieves a quarter of what it sets out to do, the measure can be a major step forward to increase transparency and accountability when investigating police officers accused of wrongdoing. It cannot be worse than the current system, which does nothing.
The Metro Council referred this measure to voters in July after two years of preparation.
It would impose a new tax on companies that employ more than 25 workers, charging those companies up to 0.75% of payroll. Metro said at the time of referral it expected the measure to raise about $4 billion for transportation projects, including a new MAX line from Portland to Tigard, and bus and sidewalk improvements in 17 high-traffic transportation corridors. The tricounty agency also believes it can leverage nearly $3 billion in matching funds, mostly federal dollars for light rail.
The economics of the measure have been a little hard to pin down, for a couple of reasons.
First, although Metro modeled its tax on TriMet's payroll tax, which local governments pay along with private employers, the agency decided at the last minute to exempt other local governments, claiming its legal authority to tax them was dubious. Despite requests from news media and opponents, Metro has never provided a legal opinion to justify that claim. Second, although the measure allows Metro to levy a tax of up to 0.75%, the agency has offered to drop that rate to 0.6% to generate support from business interests.
To its credit, Metro has attempted to prioritize transportation spending in underserved areas, such as 82nd Avenue in Portland, Tualatin Valley Highway in Washington County, and along McLoughlin Boulevard in Clackamas County. Projects in those areas would serve more people of color and low-income Oregonians who have historically not benefited from transportation improvements. The measure would also pay to convert a large portion of TriMet's fleet to electric buses and enhance bus service in major corridors—as well as build 45 miles of new sidewalks, install 140 miles of bike lanes, and give transit passes to all high school students in the Metro region. Those would all be significant improvements.
So what's not to like?
First, although Metro says, accurately, that climate change is an existential threat, its own figures show that this measure does virtually nothing to reduce carbon emissions. And critics say the highway improvements it includes would in fact encourage people to drive more.
Nobody knows whether the prepandemic commuting and traffic patterns upon which this measure was based will return after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. The measure was crafted on the assumption that workers will still head downtown each morning, but that is less than certain. So the measure proposes enormous expenditures for an environmental gain that is at best minimal and at worst illusory.
Second, economic literature is clear: Payroll taxes stifle job creation. That's exactly the opposite of what Portland needs to rebound from economic catastrophe. Proponents have presented a grossly inflated number of jobs they claim the measure would create—37,500—while failing to note the jobs would come over 20 years, not now.
Third, Metro's vague taxing policy raises issues of fairness. For instance, Providence Health & Services, a nonprofit that employs 18,000 in the region, would pay the tax, while Oregon Health & Science University, a nonprofit public corporation that employs about the same number, apparently would not. The failure of Metro to be careful and transparent about who would pay this tax will only exacerbate existing resentment—not just from business against government, but from anybody unlucky or unlawyered enough not to find a loophole.
Last but not least, we're deeply troubled by the lack of a sunset provision for this measure.
Typically, money measures—such as those on the November ballot for Portland Parks & Recreation, the Multnomah County Library, and Portland Public Schools—have finite durations. This tax never ends, even after all the projects on Metro's list are finished. It's a vote for whatever Metro wants to build next, forever. Vote no.
Authorizes Water Fund spending
This is a housekeeping measure. Because of the physical infrastructure required to deliver water to more than 650,000 residents, the Portland Water Bureau owns property all over Portland. Some of the parcels the bureau owns include surplus green space that city residents already use as playgrounds and pocket parks. There are currently seven such spaces—"hydro parks," the city calls them—sprinkled around town, mostly in neighborhoods underserved by Portland Parks & Recreation.
The Water Bureau cannot spend ratepayer dollars to mow the grass or do other maintenance on those spaces because the city charter prohibits spending Water Fund money on anything except the delivery of water to customers. So the city's general fund pays (currently, $11,500 a year). City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Water Bureau, says the general fund is already overburdened and since the Water Bureau owns the properties, it should be allowed to maintain them. (An important note: This measure specifically excludes the city's Bull Run watershed from recreational use.) The city also intends to spend $1.5 million over several years to bring the water parks into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Kent Craford, a longtime critic of the Water Bureau, argues passage of this measure could allow mission creep and abuse of ratepayer dollars. That has happened before, and the bureau agreed in 2017 to repay $10 million to ratepayers for previous misspending. But Commissioner Fritz makes a compelling argument that expanding spending beyond current parks or maintenance plus ADA costs would require a public process and a majority vote of the City Council. Good enough. Vote yes.