Measure 2-123, the renewal and expansion of the city of Corvallis’ local option property tax levy, scored a landslide victory Tuesday, according to unofficial returns from the Benton County Elections Office.
The yes vote on the levy had received 8,774 votes and was leading by a 73-27% margin. Countywide the voter turnout was 31 percent. The margin of victory was the largest of the three elections in which Corvallis voters approved a levy. A 2011 version was backed by 65% of the voters, with 52% backing a 2013 model.
“It’s outstanding. It’s amazing,” said Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber at a campaign party at American Dream Pizza downtown. “We took it out to the voters and they spoke.”
“I think it’s great,” said Rocio Munoz, a Ward 9 resident who worked on the social media and Hispanic outreach pieces of the campaign. “Corvallis did the right thing for the next generation, and we did the right thing for my children. It’s not a tax, it’s an investment.”
“I was feeling pretty confident because of what I was hearing when I went door to door,” said Ward 6 Councilor Nancy Wyse, who added that she had told her two children they would have to wait until the election to sign up for summer swim lessons because Osborn Aquatic Center was scheduled to be closed if the levy failed.
One of the happiest celebrants at the party was Todd Wheeler, the Parks and Recreation Department employee who supervises the pool.
“I’m pretty ecstatic and relieved right now,” Wheeler said. “I’m hoping that we can continue the mission with the community.”
Curtis Wright, the chair of the campaign committee, credited Rick Guenther of the Corvallis Aquatic Team for helping get out the vote by dispatching 140 swimmers and parents into the community to pass out campaign materials.
“They made campaign signs and they stood in front of Osborn and helped get the word out,” Wright said. “The margin was a little higher than I expected," Wright added, “but I am incredibly pleased. The voters of Corvallis really care about the community and the people who live here."
There was no organized campaign in opposition to the levy, with opponents voicing their views in letters to the Gazette-Times. However, levy backers held a 2-1 edge on the letters page.
Passage of the levy, the third that city voters have approved in the past eight years, means that large chunks of the budgets of the library and the Parks and Recreation Department will be restored when the Corvallis Budget Commission meets for deliberations at 6 p.m. Thursday at the downtown fire station, 400 NW Harrison Blvd. The public hearing on the budget was held May 14, which means no public testimony will be taken at Thursday’s session.
The $169 million budget prepared by City Manager Mark Shepard and Finance Director Nancy Brewer was completed before the levy vote was held and was developed based on the assumption that the levy would fail. Brewer and Shepard said it is easier in such cases to add items back to a budget than to initiate new cuts. Brewer said she will have amendments ready for the Budget Commission to consider that would restore the cuts.
Levies look like they will be part of the Corvallis budget toolbox indefinitely. During the Measure 2-123 campaign Traber told an election forum at the library that residents should expect another levy campaign in five years. City officials say that the property tax limitations imposed by Measure 5 and Measure 50 have forced them to look at other means to raise revenue for city services.
The city considered tools other than the levy through 22 meetings in 2015 and 2016 of a sustainable budget task force. After a review of department-by-department unmet needs the group examined ways to boost revenue. Ideas were floated such as an entertainment tax, a restaurant tax, a first-responder fee, business license fees, a bottled water tax, adding to the city services bill, a local income tax, a local gas tax and a local sales tax. Eventually the city came up with a “three-legged stool" of revenue measures:
• Measure 2-123, the levy on Tuesday’s ballot. The measure, which charges property owners $1.07 per $1,000 of assessed value, represents a consistent upward spike. The 2001 levy charged 45 cents per $1,000, with the 2013 version levying 82 cents per $1,000.
• A public safety fee that will be added to the city services bill July 1 and will pay for 19 police hires and seven more in the Corvallis Fire Department. Property owners and businesses currently are charged for water, wastewater, transit service, urban forestry and street maintenance on the city services bill. The new fee would add $17.31 to the average monthly residential bill, $121.17 for a grocery store, approximately $3,500 for Samaritan Health Services and more than $35,000 per month for Oregon State University. Nonprofits such as Samaritan, OSU and the Corvallis School District do not pay the property taxes that fund most city services. The fee increase was enacted by the City Council on a unanimous vote. It was not required to go to the voters.
• A 911 countywide emergency services taxing district, which goes before the voters in November. The current dispatch center has a budget that pays for 17 employees. The new district, if approved, would pay for 24 dispatchers and four supervisors. The rate for the new district is 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, but Corvallis Police Chief Jonathan Sassaman said he plans to start by using just 45 cents of it. Having the 65-cent limit is seen as a way to help make it easier for the district to grow with the population. The aim of the new district is to improve response times.