The Portland City Council Agenda shows a rare evening hearing:
WEDNESDAY, 6:00 PM, FEBRUARY 20, 2008
257 TIME CERTAIN: 6:00 PM - Refer renewal of Children's Levy to City voters as a local option levy for five years commencing in fiscal year 2009-10 (Resolution introduced by Commissioner Saltzman)
I'm glad to see this being scheduled when more people can attend... even though it means I personally can't, because I am already committed to a Coalition for a Livable Future meeting on the I-5 Columbia River bridge that evening. Dang.
The Children's Levy isn't as simple as it seems. Of course, most people support helping impoverished children. The Children’s Investment Fund (CHIF) supports many vital programs, which provide cost-effective returns on investment and huge benefits to children and families. Without renewal of CHIF, these programs may go unfunded.
Let me be very clear:
* I support funding early childhood, preschool, and after school programs.
Even if you don't care about the people they serve, these programs are cost-effective in producing later savings, by helping children before they slip behind academically and socially. Helping a child to learn to read and write in first grade is much easier and cheaper than helping that child catch up in middle school after years of not being able to keep up with the rest of the class. Certainly, much less expensive than putting young people in prison under Measure 11, after failing in the educational system.
* I find it hard to justify why the City of Portland is the appropriate jurisdiction to propose the levy and manage the fund.
Why not the County? Why not the State? It may have been necessary for Portland to take a stand, providing these programs, in 2002 when state revenues were still strapped and the Legislature wasn't controlled by leaders elected on platforms of getting services to people in need. Portland took the lead to make sure the money for the varied programs assisted by CHIF was raised for six years. Is it still Portland's responsibility today?
* I question asking Portlanders to pay for these services via another property tax levy.
Because of Measure 5, residential property owners pay a disproportionate share of property taxes. Businesses need educated workers. More than two thirds of Oregon corporations pay the minimum tax, which is $10 per year. Before Portland property tax payers are asked to pony up for these worthy programs again, other mechanisms and sources for the money to pay for them should be reviewed in public hearings. How about ending successful Urban Renewal Areas, so Multnomah County has more money to pay for these programs out of its own budget?
Children and families need Head Start and after school support in Portland, and also in Beaverton, Medford, and Pendleton. I want Portlanders to discuss whether renewing the Children's Fund levy in Portland diminishes the potential for permanent statewide funding of these crucial services for all Oregon’s children. Perhaps a better approach would be for the entire Portland City Council to pressure the 2009 Legislative session in Salem to push for statewide funding of early childhood programs, in all 36 counties.
I also want to know the numbers on compression under the Measure 50 cap with regard to operating expenses, if the Children's Fund is renewed in Portland. Measure 50 limits the total amount allowed to be raised by property tax levies. The number for that cap is up for debate because it depends on many factors in the insanely complicated rules of the property tax rules in Measures 7, 47, and 50. It is further complicated by Portland's obligation under the Charter to pay for the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund (FPDR) as an operating expense.
Essentially, the Measure 50 cap works like this (numbers for example only):
You're a kid in a candy store. You have a five dollar bill. You want to buy a pound of lemon drops, a pound of mints, and a pound of licorice. You really really like lemon drops, mints, and licorice. Each pound of candy costs $2. You can't buy three pounds of candy - your spending limit is five bucks. The licorice only comes in one pound packages, so you spend $2 on that- that's the FPDR allocation in Portland, which gets priority. You only have $3 left in your allowance, so you can buy just three quarters of a pound of lemon drops, three quarters of a pound of mints. Your inability to buy a full pound of lemon drops and a full pound of mints is due to "compression", in Measure 50 language.
Put another way: operating expenses are a pie. When you vote on levies, you can't increase the size of the pie, you determine how it is sliced.
What happened when the 2002 Children's Fund levy was approved by voters was that not as much money was raised for the Parks levy running concurrently, because of Measure 50 compression. And since voters knew what was promised in the Parks levy, they were outraged when there wasn't enough money to fund specific improvements. Buckman Pool repairs, for example. "Parks didn't do what they promised, I'm not voting for another Parks levy!", people said. In fact, one reason the Parks levy couldn't finish its To Do list was that because when voters also passed the Children's levy, the Parks levy didn't bring in as much as expected.
Note: capital expenses funded with bonds don't fall under the Measure 50 cap on operating levies. Voting for buying real estate or buildings will increase your property tax bill, but capital improvements don't compete with each other other than for voter approval. The proposed school construction bonds and zoo renovations, and the approved Metro Greenspaces bond to buy land, are where governments get approval from voters to increase their spending, rather than dividing up a pie of set size in different slices.
Politicians should be honest with voters as to the total amount of operating levies that are allowed under Measure 50. Portland is a progressive city and our voters have proved willing to fund many worthy causes, but the reality of Measure 50 means we can’t buy them all. I believe the citizens of Portland will make the right decisions when leaders give accurate information about the choices. Measure 50 considerations should be on the table and dealt with openly, when various jurisdictions are deciding which operating levies to put on the November 2008 ballot. Voters approved Charter changes that continue to use pay-as-we-go to fund FPDR. We may well be asked to vote for a Multnomah County public safety operating levy. I want to know how much we have in our pocket to spend in the operating levy store.
Elected officials and City/County financial experts should sit down in the same room, and figure it out, before putting measures on the November 2008 ballot. The responsible approach would be for those leaders and numbers experts to say to voters: "You can spend x dollars on all operating levies on the November ballot. We've set it up so that we're asking you to approve this percentage of x going to public safety, that percentage going to children's programs. This percentage goes to Police/Fire pensions/disability, and you have y percentage left over in case you want to buy something else in 2010." If we are allowed to fund them all, in the amounts promised, the questions voters will be asked in November are different from if we are really being asked how many slices we want the pie to be cut into. These issues should be part of the debate at the Council hearing on Wednesday evening.
There are other important items on the Portland City Council Agenda on Wednesday morning. The one that most caught my attention is:
245 TIME CERTAIN: 9:30 AM - Adopt the recommendations in the 82nd Avenue of Roses High Crash Safety Corridor Safety Action Plan Report (Resolution introduced by Commissioner Adams)
I attended an Open House on the proposal at the Central Northeast Neighbors facility. Neighbors participating seemed generally pleased. The Report is linked with the ordinance on the Agenda, which is nice. And "staff is directed to engage in activities to implement the improvements described in the 82nd Avenue of Roses High Crash Corridor Safety Action Plan report". The big question, of course, is funding. Too often, citizens and staff put years of work into such reports, then the City funds new studies instead of paying for the infrastructure identified in the Action Plans. I hope the items in the 82nd Avenue of Roses report are included for consideration in the Budget being reviewed in public meetings next week.