Neighborhood Coalition Demands Transportation Bureau Produce Street Fee Calculations

SE Uplift files an appeal to the Multnomah County District Attorney.

Among the groups lining up to oppose the street fee, perhaps the most striking is SE Uplift.

The neighborhood coalition is overseen and funded by City Hall. SE Uplift represents 20 neighborhood associations in Southeast Portland—the power blocs of Portland retail politics. The support of neighborhood associations is crucial to winning local votes.

Unlike the business lobby, SE Uplift has no natural gripe with the plan by Mayor Charlie Hales and City Commissioner Steve Novick to raise $46 million annually for street repairs with an income tax and a business fee.

But the chair of SE Uplift, Robert McCullough, is a longtime adversary of freight interests—like Union Pacific, which runs a railroad line along his posh Eastmoreland neighborhood. McCullough is convinced freight companies are paying less than their fair share of the proposed business fee. 

"If we have reduced the pain for the transportation sector from 40 percent to 0.9 percent," McCullough says, "somebody is picking up a lot of pain. And I'm afraid it's the middle class here in Portland."

SE Uplift asked the Portland Bureau of Transportation to show its work papers behind the business fee. PBOT hasn't produced those documents.

That's led to an even more remarkable fight.

On Wednesday, the board of SE Uplift unanimously voted to file an appeal with Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, asking him to compel PBOT to produce its paperwork.

In other words: A group of neighborhood associations is asking an outside party to force a city bureau to share records with another branch of city government.

The appeal, filed today, asks Underhill to make PBOT deliver the paperwork before a City Council vote on the street fee, scheduled for Dec. 10.

McCullough says Novick and PBOT don't want to show their math because they got it wrong.

"I think we are facing a serious case of political embarrassment," McCullough says. "It's not immediately clear that Steve Novick has mastered the adding here. All we're asking for is the work papers. They promised them three weeks ago. This is something they should have been able to deliver in three minutes."

Novick and PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera could not immediately be reached for comment.

But in a Nov. 18 email to McCullogh's team, Rivera says he's provided a table of estimated tax revenues and says the bureau is still calculating the costs of processing the other records.

"You have asked for a very broad list of documents," writes Rivera, "including spreadsheets and formulas that contain information exempt from disclosure."

UPDATE, 4:04 pm: City Commissioner Steve Novick tells WW that SE Uplift's records search is quixotic.

"The work group came up with the idea that no one location should pay more than $144 a month," Novick says. "Mr. McCullough thinks that [Union-Pacific] should pay a lot more than that. That's a policy difference, and there isn't any document that can resolve it." (On Saturday, Novick clarifies that the work group capped business fees at $120 a month, but the city's most recent proposal is $144 a month.)

Novick says McCullough's goal of getting freight companies to pay more is laudable—it just doesn't fit with the business-fee structure the city selected in work groups over the summer.

"I think Robert believes that there must be some secret document that shows how we could fit his square-peg policy into the work group's round-hole approach," Novick adds. "He needs to understand that no matter how fine a square peg he might have, it just doesn't fit into the work group's round hole."