Portland City Council May Open the Door Slightly to Letting Voters Have Their Say on the Street Fee

Portland City Council is nearing consensus on how to structure a street fee to raise $40 million for road repairs and safety projects.

What they don't agree on: whether Portland voters will get a say.

As Portland commissioners discuss the shape of the street fee this afternoon, WW has learned Mayor Charlie Hales is considering having two City Council votes in November: One would be on the fee itself, and the second on whether City Hall should approve the fee without sending it to a public vote. 

That move would make it easier for the fee to get majority or even unanimous support from City Council, while allowing commissioners who want a public vote—Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman—to attempt to find a third vote to send the proposal to the ballot.

"It's certainly something we have been discussing," says Josh Alpert, Hales' director of strategic initiatives. "We still have a month until something comes to council."

The street fee has changed significantly since it was met by public scorn in June—decried for placing big tax burdens on small businesses, churches and the poor.

City Commissioner Steve Novick has been pushing City Hall toward reworking the street fee as an income tax—with the highest burden on people making more than $250,000. And citizen committees have discussed capping the possible monthly charge to businesses at $135.

(UPDATE, Tuesday, Oct. 14: The latest proposals before City Council now include a bracket for people making more than $500,000, and the business cap is suggested at $120 a month.)

Those proposals are making their first appearances before City Council today, in preparation for a Nov. 19 vote by City Council. (The Oregonian has obtained detailed figures from the latest income tax proposals.)

A coalition of transportation advocates—including pedestrian group Oregon Walks—are pressing City Council to pass the income tax, while the anti-street fee contingent is sending out its own email blast.

But with an end game nearing on what the fee will look like, talk inside City Hall is turning to who will vote for it—and whether they'll send it to the ballot.

City Commissioner Nick Fish first proposed splitting the two votes to Hales last month. (The technical terminology for the split is dividing the resolution and the ordinance.) Fish has said he won't support the street fee without sending it to the ballot.

This change would allow him to back the reworked street fee without reneging on his promise not to bypass voters.

"We think it would be constructive to the process," Fish says. "It's a good idea to debate them separately, and to engage the full council on both issues. It doesn't shut anybody out from the sausage-making."

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