WW’s May 2024 Endorsements: Measures

The passage of a dikes and levees tax is non-negotiable for a number of reasons.

Filling potholes in Portland. (Chris Nesseth)

Measure 26-243 - Issues bonds for dikes and levees


There’s nothing fun about Measure 26-243, a property tax measure that has mostly annoyed the few people who know about it. But should voters reject it, the consequences could be dire.

The measure would levy a small property tax on property owners within the boundaries of the Urban Flood Safety & Water Quality District, which spans all of Multnomah County inside Metro’s urban growth boundary.

The Oregon Legislature created the district’s 17-member board in 2019 for the express purpose of figuring out how to fund repairs and reinforcements of a 9-mile stretch of levees that hold in the Columbia River.

If passed, property owners within district boundaries would pay about 11 cents for every $1,000 in property value for 20 years. For a home assessed at $275,000, that’s $30 a year. Most of that money would go toward repairing degraded levees by installing new riprap at the bottom, raising the height of levees and, in places, installing new flood walls. Seven pump stations would also get upgrades.

The passage of this tax is non-negotiable for a number of reasons.

If voters don’t pass the $150 million measure, Portland risks a number of unpleasant consequences: First, the levees would lose federal accreditation—which means the businesses and homes along the levees, including the Port of Portland, Amazon and FedEx, would have to purchase extremely expensive flood insurance. Second, the district would lose $100 million in matching federal funds to repair and reinforce the levees. Third, and perhaps most importantly, if we don’t reinforce the system and the levees break (an unlikely scenario, but possible), we’re in for disaster. Remember, the levees protect the same North Portland lowlands that once held the predominantly Black town of Vanport until a 1948 flood wiped it off the map.

The Urban Flood Safety & Water Quality District initially wanted to send a $195 million bond to the ballot but brought it down to $150 million after the Portland Metro Chamber said it would actively oppose the more expensive measure. The haggling has resulted in a compromise without bells and whistles (and lacking some environmental protections the initial draft called for). It’s simply the upgrades needed to prevent a deluge. We approve.

Measure 26-244 - Authorizes bonds for the Oregon Zoo


The regional government Metro and its elected council manage a diverse portfolio. The agency runs the region’s solid waste collection and recycling; oversees regional land use and transportation planning; administers the 10-year, $3 billion supportive housing services measure; and operates a variety of entertainment venues, the Oregon Convention Center, and the Oregon Zoo.

Metro gets its funding from property taxes, trash tipping fees, ticket sales and other sources. But it has regularly asked voters in recent years to open their wallets for additional investments: a $652.8 million housing bond in 2018; $475 million for a parks and nature bond in 2019; and a tax on high-income earners to fund homeless services in 2020. All of which voters passed.

This election, Metro wants $380 million in new bonds to pay for infrastructure projects at the zoo. The zoo proposes to use the money to create better living conditions for animals, such as penguins, sea otters and giraffes; to launch new and better educational offerings; and to upgrade other zoo infrastructure.

Some animal rights advocates oppose the measure. They say the zoo treats animals, particularly elephants, inhumanely. That’s a reasonable concern; many major zoos, including those in Nashville, San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver, have closed their elephant exhibits. It’s fair to ask whether such large mammals can be content in captivity.

We have another problem with this measure. Zoo proponents fail to make a convincing case they have a critical need for the money. They point out that this bond essentially replaces an old one, meaning the bite it puts on taxpayers would remain the same, about 8.5 cents per $1,000 assessed value—roughly $1.95 a month for the owner of a home assessed at $275,000. It feels backward: Rather than develop a bond based on a clearly defined, pressing need, which they haven’t done, proponents simply calculated what the market might bear.

Voters already feel taxed to the hilt, and are far more concerned about the need for housing and mental health services that have plunged our region into crisis, making this request by Metro feel out of step. In fact, it seems primarily motivated by a desire not to see the money spigot turned off when the old bonds are paid off.

Yes, the measure would spruce up a popular tourist attraction. But polling consistently shows voters want to see public funds spent to fix the region’s most urgent problems. This isn’t one of them.

Measure 26-245 - Renews gas tax


Perfect is the enemy of good, we know—but we wish the backers of the gas tax on the May ballot had gotten within a few thousand miles of perfect.

Portlanders first passed the 10-cent gas tax in 2016, after then-City Commissioner Steve Novick tried to craft something more comprehensive and rational to pay for city streets, and failed. The gas tax was sloppy triage back then, and this year, it’s little more than a Band-Aid.

Electric cars and high-mileage hybrids make a mockery of the tax. Such vehicles still use the roads, but they don’t buy as much gas. So the state, which collects gas taxes and shares them with cities, is starving for revenue. The roads are just as crowded—and just as thrashed—but fewer and fewer drivers are paying for their upkeep.

Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps came by to pitch a renewal of the tax last month. He admitted the levy was “obsolete.” We asked him why the city couldn’t just charge Tesla owners a flat fee, or something along those lines. Mapps said the state Legislature was better situated to do something new and different, and that he hoped it would.

Tax wonks say the best, fairest solution is a “vehicle miles traveled” tax. Unfortunately, that would require putting trackers in people’s cars, and any surveillance freaks out Americans (even though we already have devices in our pockets that track our every move).

Portland voters are fed up with special taxes, but if this one doesn’t pass, we’ll have roads going around potholes instead of potholes in the middle of roads. As WW reported in last week’s cover story, we’ve been starving our streets of funds for four decades. Let’s not make it worse.

Measure 26-246 - Renews levy for Portland teachers


Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, we thought the Portland Association of Teachers’ strike was a mistake built on the union’s faulty understanding of district finances. Yes, we’re aware that teachers in Oregon were among the first in line to get COVID vaccinations and among the last to return to work. And yes, we know Portland’s educational outcomes are relatively low and student absenteeism is high.

But you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Since 2000, Portland Public Schools has asked taxpayers to supplement school funding from the Legislature with extra property taxes—about $550 a year on a home assessed at $275,000. The levy pays for about 660 teachers, counselors and educational assistants. That’s one-fifth of the district’s frontline staff.

So the choice is simple: Renew the levy for another five years and keep those people in schools, or lay them off (the district already plans to lay off about 100 employees because of a budget shortfall created in part by the teachers’ new contract). Despite the many criticisms one might make of PAT and the school district’s leadership, the simple fact is that public schools represent a vital social contract. Taxpayers before you paid for your education; now, whether you have children in PPS or not, it’s your turn to pay for the next generation.

We all benefit from children getting the best education we can offer, and it’s lunacy to suggest that cutting one-fifth of current staffing would be anything other than a disaster. Vote yes.

See more of Willamette Week’s May 2024 Endorsements here!

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