With the support of Mayor Sharon Konopa, Albany officials are working on a “public outreach” campaign that may lead to council action on a surcharge on city utility bills to raise money for street repairs.
The subject came up at the conclusion of the city council meeting Wednesday night. The mayor brought it up, recalling that Albany voters in May 2018 overwhelmingly rejected a local city gas tax to pay for street work. There had been talk of a “street utility” tax as an alternative if the gas tax failed. The mayor wondered where that was.
Jeff Blaine, in charge of community development as well as public works engineering, responded that the staff had been working on a public outreach campaign including video presentations in preparation for bringing a proposal to the council. A similar campaign to win public acceptance was launched in 2016 before the council enacted a storm water utility fee (I’ve been calling it a rain tax) that has been added to the monthly city water and sewer bills since March 2017.
Blaine told the council the staff might have something to bring to a meeting in June to start the discussion. “The sooner the better,” the mayor said. (See the note below.)
Councilman Bill Coburn served notice that he would oppose a street utility tax. He is opposed to another tax as long as the city continues to divert about $1.5 million in annual franchise tax receipts to other city programs. The franchise fees on city utilities were originally enacted to support the street program but were sidetracked to shore up the rest of the budget during the recession about a decade ago.
The street tax would be added to water and sewer bills the same way as the rain tax, which raises money for repairs and management of the city’s storm sewers. The defeated gas tax had been estimated to yield about $1 million a year, so you can expect any utility tax to cost about the same.
More than 30 cities from Ashland to Wood Village, including Corvallis and Philomath, have imposed street utility fees, according to the League of Oregon Cities.
You’d think that the property tax limitations in the Oregon Constitution (Measures 5 and 50) would protect people from real estate taxes not approved by voters. But Oregon courts have ruled those limits don’t prevent so-called utility fees, which are taxes in all but name. (hh)
Jeff Blaine, director of community development and public works engineering, sent me this clarification Thursday morning: “I wanted to let you know that I think there was a misunderstanding of what is currently taking place. Staff has not done any work on a street utility and staff is not preparing to bring a proposal forward unless directed to by Council after they further discuss options and competing priorities. Right now, staff has been working on public outreach efforts about street condition, best management practices, and funding challenges. When that is complete, Council will again discuss alternatives. What they see next will be the same information and alternatives they received in 2017 and 2018. A street utility is an available option to consider but no direction has been provided to pursue that yet.”
The story has been edited to reflect this.