Should Portland residents still pay for leaf clean-up?

Seven years after the program began, no one has yet to be fined for failing to rake up their leaves after opting out of the leaf fee.

Seven years after the program began, half of eligible Portland residents don't pay for leaf clean-up in the city. None

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PORTLAND, Ore. — In 2010, the city of Portland tried something new. For the first time, city leaders decided to charge residents for leaf removal -- a service the city traditionally paid for.

The program was intended to help supplement the budget during tough economic times and cover the cost of cleaning streets. 

Seven years later, the city’s still charging for leaf clean-up but nearly half of all eligible residents have opted out of the program. The leaf fee has never generated the revenue it was expected to and there appears to be limited enforcement. 

City officials confirm that no one has ever been fined for failing to rake up their leaves after opting out. 

Critics argue the leaf fee has proven to be unnecessary and the city shouldn’t charge residents a fee for a basic city service.

“The city owns the streets. They should maintain them,” said Ray Horton, who lives in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood. “Portland says it is the city that works and I feel like it is the city that works you over.”

Roughly 36,000 residents and businesses in select tree-lined neighborhoods are asked to pay $15 to $65 a year for leaf collection. City officials say the program helps clear potentially slick and hazardous leaves and prevents clogged storm drains and flooded intersections.

Over the years, the number of property owners who opt out of the leaf fee has steadily increased. In 2011, the first year records are available, 12,275 residents opted out. In 2017, 17,293 households elected not to pay the leaf fee. 

View Portland Leaf Fee: Who Opted Out? in a full screen map

“Opting out is a feature, not a bug,” explained John Brady, communications director for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “If people don’t have street trees, they should opt out, and if people want to manage the leaves themselves, they should opt out as well.”

Originally, the city of Portland expected the program to raise $800,000 annually.  Last year, the program raised $502,497. City officials say the fees are not intended to cover the entire cost of the program. Citywide transportation funds are used to fill the gap. 

Transportation officials say the leaf day program costs a little more than $1 million annually. There are $837,084 in operational costs, officials say, and $262,602 in administrative costs for the mailing and processing of brochures and opt-out materials.

Many residents in the 28 tree-lined Portland neighborhoods included in leaf day clean-up say they appreciate the service.

“It’s expensive but we’ve been paying for it,” said one resident in Northeast Portland. “It’s a good program.”

But others say the fee is unnecessary. 

“I’d like the city to just take care of it,” said Lucy Wilson, who also lives in Northeast Portland.

City officials argue the 7-year-old program is effective and there are no plans to eliminate the leaf fee.

“It would be possible to go back to a system where you were just financing it through general city monies but if you do that, there’s always going to be trade-off involved,” explained Brady. “That is money that is going to have to come from somewhere.”

Published Dec. 1, 2017

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