Hotseat: Steve Novick

The City Commissioner talks about his (so far) unsuccessful fight to raise $50 million a year for streets.

ROAD WARRIOR: "I'm confronted with situations," says City Commissioner Steve Novick (right), with Mayor Charlie Hales, "where compromising my values that I've always held dear seems more necessary than I would have hoped."

Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick's road forward is uphill.

The freshman councilor has begun a goodwill tour to heal the rancor from his attempt this spring to cram a citywide "street fee" through the City Council without voters' approval.

Last month, Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales hit the pause button on a plan to raise $50 million for road paving and sidewalk construction by charging households and businesses a monthly fee.

It's an unprecedented moment for Novick, who enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the city before leading the charge for transportation funding. Now the policy wonk, known for voicing a dozen ideas before breakfast, needs just one that voters will support.

Hours after attending a press conference to show off the city's repaving success this year, Novick stopped by WW's offices to talk about why his plans went so wrong so quickly. Novick said throughout the debate he has remained unchanged. He also talked about why he is thinking about raising other taxes on all Portland businesses to pay for road upkeep, and why he may soon get sick of having to pay for the streetcar, and his secret plan to win over Portlanders.

WW: In the past six years, local voters have passed an arts tax, a library tax, a tax to fund the historical society, at least two school taxes and a zoo bond. This city will tax itself for everything—except transportation. Why?

Steve Novick: I think people are a little burned out. Also, transportation is something people think of as already being paid for. People know that they pay gas taxes, and they think those address their transportation needs.

City Hall has tried to climb the street-fee hill three times and died each time.

It's a setback, but it doesn't feel like a defeat yet, because we're not giving up. What I'm hoping for in the next few months are people that are hoping to engage in a solution. I don't feel discouraged about it.

Have you changed since you took office?

I don't feel that I have, except I'm confronted with problems that seem desperately important to solve really quickly.

With the street fee, for me to support something that's regressive is kind of astonishing. I object to this idea with 96 percent of the fibers of my being. But I object to letting the streets continue to deteriorate—and continue to have inequality in terms of pedestrian safety within the city—with 100 percent of my being.

What shouldn't the city's Transportation Bureau be spending money on?

I made a pitch to my colleagues last year that the general fund should pick up a chunk of the cost of operating the streetcar. I didn't get very far.

Would you want the power to be able to shut the streetcar down?

I haven't said this to anybody yet, including the mayor, but I will say it. If we get to the point where we think that we cannot have an additional source of revenue to fund basic maintenance: Yes, I will wish we were in a position to shut down the streetcar.

When you delayed a council vote, you told us, "We've been playing not to lose. From here on out, I play to win." What's your plan?

I'm not going to give you a complete answer. Part of the answer is something that I'm not ready to talk about yet.

Do you have a secret plan to win the war? 

I do. Just like my idol, Richard Nixon.

The fee is one mechanism of raising money. But there are other mechanisms of raising the same money on the business side. We could simply raise the business profits tax.

What kind of percentage increase would it take to raise $50 million?

Raising half of that, $26.5 million, it'd have to go from 2.2 percent to 3.06 percent.

It sounds like you're still trying to find ways to avoid putting it to a public vote.

What I think we're going to end up with is something that a fair number of people might say, "That wouldn't have been the way I would have done it. And if I had a chance, I might have waited and voted for something that I liked better. But I can understand why they're doing it. I can grudgingly accept it."

So you are going to the ballot?

No. I'm not telling you. Over the next couple of weeks, there will be some things that I'm ready to say that I'm not ready to say now.

It sounds a little bit like magical thinking—wouldn't it be great if people say, "We'll learn to live with a street fee. Thank God that the City Council made us get used to it." Why not just walk right up to voters and say, "This is what we think is best"?

Well, that is what happened in 28 other Oregon cities. We had the mayor of Oregon City come to our event last month and he said, "Look, people were upset about this when it passed." But apparently no special-interest group took it to the ballot. People saw how they were spending the money, and people came to accept it.

So that does happen. 

WWeek 2015

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