PORTLAND -- Hundreds of business owners, non-profit organizers, church and school representatives packed a ballroom at the Oregon Convention Center Tuesday, to voice their opinion on a controversial street maintenance fee proposal.
For two hours, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick listened to suggested tweaks on the proposal or new ideas to find $50-million a year to help fund road, bridge and sidewalk repair and maintenance.
According to city officials, the federal gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993, and even then it wasn't made to adjust for inflation. This means that the cost of construction materials to fix streets now far outweighs the money that's coming in.
Under the current proposal, business owners would pay thousands of dollars more a year than homeowners. The fee billed to homeowners would come to about $140 per year.
Business fees would be incurred based on a math calculation of square footage and street traffic generated. Some called that calculation unfair and said it would put them out of business, or force them to move out of the city.
"I have a small coffee shop. It's much harder for me to absorb these costs than Starbucks who has hundreds of coffee shops. Somehow it has to be made equitable," one man said during Tuesday's hearing.
Many of the 27 speakers suggested instead to create a studded tires fee, a county gas tax, a higher business license fee, or an increase in the tax they pay for gross revenue.
"I'm not going to criticize you, it's a tough job you have. But you need to slow down and make this tax as broad as possible before you put small businesses out of business," said one man.
When asked how he felt after hearing the frustrations of business owners, Mayor Hales said, "I think we'll chase away even more businesses if our streets fall apart in 10 years and we look like a third world country."
In response to pet project accusations: If you can find misspent money in my budgets, I'll show up on your doorstep with $10 & a TV reporter— Charlie Hales (@MayorPDX) June 24, 2014
Most business owners told Hales and Novick they understand extra money needs to be raised to fix roads. They see the damage too.
Only one man, who identified himself from a non-profit organization, told the town hall that he supports the fee idea the way it is. He said, "If we're not keeping up with the maintenance and deferring it, the price gets higher every year. We have to make this investment, in my opinion."
When asked if the public can vote on the proposal, instead of the council voting on it in November, Hales challenged the crowd to come up with $1 million to put it on the ballot.
"We're not willing to have a general retail sales tax in this state so we have to keep paying for things one by one, whether it's our schools, the arts or our streets," said Hales. "I think it's a dumb way to run a state. But we're stuck in that dumb way of running a state because Oregonians have rejected a sales tax nine times."
Wednesday night the residential fee will be up for debate. That town hall meeting is scheduled from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Kaiser Permanente on N. Interstate in Portland.