The city of Corvallis is taking a third run at persuading voters to pay for city services via a property tax levy.
Measure 2-123 on the May 21 ballot would raise $29 million over five years and cost property owners $1.07 per $1,000 of assessed value. The new proposal is a renewal and expansion of a similar five-year levy passed in 2013 that cost 82 cents per $1,000. Which was a renewal and expansion of a similar three-year levy passed in 2011 that cost 45 cents per $1,000.
The 2011 version passed with 65 percent of the vote. The 2013 vote was much closer, with a 52-48 approval rate. Measure 2-123 backers say that the difference was that the city loaded up that version with police officers and Community Development hires.
In 2019 we are back to largely library and parks and recreation services that voters strongly supported in 2011.
Will they do so in 2019? That’s the $29 million question.
“If I were a betting man I would bet that the voters will vote yes,” said Curtis Wright, a longtime “community enthusiast” who serves as the chair of the Corvallis Budget Commission and chairs the committee seeking to pass Measure 2-1232.
“Because the citizens of Corvallis care a lot about the town and they care a lot about other people in the town," Wright said. "People who live here have big hearts.”
But if they don’t vote yes, city officials say, the results will be drastic. Osborn Aquatic Center, the Majestic Theatre and the Chintimini Senior and Community Center would be closed, all recreation programs would be gone and library hours, materials and programs would be severely cut. The two departments would lose the equivalent of nearly 30 full-time employees, according to the 2019-20 budget that city officials will present Thursday to the Corvallis Budget Commission.
City officials and campaign backers made it clear that levies are here to stay. Because of the property tax limitations in state law the city is restricted to raising property taxes by 3% per year.
“The first levy was for three years and the idea was let’s see what we can do to fix things,” said second-term Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber, who was the councilor for Ward 8 when the first levy was brought forward. Traber also is serving as treasurer of the campaign committee.
“Can we fix things? No, we couldn’t, so we did it again” with the 2013 levy, Traber said, adding that the City Council that took office in January 2015 as he moved into the mayoral position made finding a revenue-services solution one of its goals for the term.
The city considered tools other than the levy, through 22 meetings in 2015 and 2016 of a sustainable budget task force, chaired by veteran Ward 9 Councilor Hal Brauner. After a review of department-by-department unmet needs the group examined ways to boost revenue.
Floated were ideas 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 the May 21 ballot. The annual cost for the owner of property assessed at $300,000 is $246 under the current levy. It would rise to $321 per year if the new levy passes. City officials have noted that in addition to the 82 cents on the expiring levy, property owners also are paying 25 cents per $1,000 for a general obligation bond voters approved for park land and open space. Both the levy and the bond expire June 30.
Thus, city officials and levy backers say, renewal of the levy at $1.07 technically would mean no property tax increase. Voters, however, might feel that they would prefer to have that quarter back or that the services provided by the levy are just not worth the tax increase.
• A public safety fee that will be added to the city services bill July 1 and will pay for 19 hires in the Corvallis Police Department and seven more in the Corvallis Fire Department. Property owners and businesses currently are charged for water, stormwater, 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 pay for 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 emergency services taxing district that goes before the voters in November. The complicated process to send the measure to the voters required seeking support from 14 taxing jurisdictions countywide. The current dispatch center in the law enforcement building on Northwest Fifth Street has a budget that pays for 17 employees.
The new district, if approved, would pay for 24 dispatchers, four supervisors and establish a reserve fund for equipment and facilities upgrades. The rate for the new district is 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, but Corvallis Police Chief Jonathan Sassaman said he plans during the early years of the district to use just 45 cents of it. The tax increase would raise approximately $3.7 million per year countywide. 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.
Other levies, bonds
City requests for funds don’t occur in a vacuum. In recent years the Corvallis School District and Benton County have passed operating levies. Last May the school district passed a $200 million facilities bond. County Oregon State University extension services also have been shifted to property tax payers via a 2017 election.
The county went out for a bond measure to replace the county jail in 2015, but it was defeated. Another such request is almost a certainty: A $170,000 criminal justice assessment was delivered to the Board of Commissioners in January. The county could seek funding for both a new jail and a courthouse, with the most likely dates for a vote somewhere between 2021 and 2023.
Measure 2-123 has been endorsed by a broad range of Corvallis individuals and organizations, including the City Council, the Benton County Board of Commissioners, the League of Woman Voters of Corvallis, Casa Latinos Unidos de Benton County, the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, the United Way and the Corvallis School Board.
The arguments in favor of Measure 2-123 take up six pages of the Benton County Voters’ Pamphlet. No one submitted arguments opposing the measure, although opponents do exist.
The Gazette-Times has published 20 letters to the editor to date, with 13 letter writers favoring the renewal and five letters expressing opposition. One correspondent complained at the “cost” of putting measures on the ballot, noting that the urban renewal district was a one-item election in March. That election cost the city $33,932.55. The city is not required to pay for May or November elections.
Jacque Schreck, a member of the city’s library advisory board, framed the issue in terms of “our capital investments.”
“We built our library,” she wrote. “We bought and built our parks, trails, pools. We renovated a former fire station into a popular senior center. We took ownership of a vaudeville theater and made it Majestic. Protect these important community assets. Keep them operating for all to enjoy. Vote yes.”
Bonnie Avery wrote that by characterizing library and parks services as “recreational, perhaps it is easier to dismiss their importance to our community. I would argue that they are basic. The services supported by Measure 2-123 build community by broadening our social circles. They enhance social interaction particularly among seniors who can easily become isolated. They provide lifelong educational opportunities for children and adults.”
Two of the five letters of opposition came from John Detweiler, a former City Council candidate and veteran budget hawk, who also discussed his concerns with the levy — and its predecessors — at an April 9 Corvallis City Club forum at the library.
“As I keep saying, we need to plan ahead. We need to set priorities and make choices,” Detweiler wrote. “Do we subsidize recreation, create a 911 service-taxing district, or do we buy a new courthouse and jail? Which are the more important items? Moreover, we know that PERS is going to keep absorbing tax money. Do we want to drive old people on fixed incomes and people who do not make much money out of Corvallis by making housing less affordable?”
Aaron Amoth, meanwhile, wrote “I find it very disheartening that our city management has been unable to balance the books for the third consecutive cycle and their go-to recourse is to threaten the community (mainly children and the elderly) by reducing some of the most endeared services.”
There is an undercurrent in some of the opposition that the city is bluffing and that officials know that community members value the services at risk and have no intention of going through with the cuts.
“Yes, you close it down … the pool, the Senior Center and the Majestic,” Traber said. “You have to do that. We have to maintain our credibility with the community.”
Traver also emphasized that “the city is working on living within its means,” noting efforts to add money to PERS reserves and the $1.2 million in operating cost reductions supervised by City Manager Mark Shepard. Parks and Rec has a cost-recovery program aimed at maximizing revenue without hurting programs. And pool programs, according to former director and campaign vice-chair Mark Worden, pays for 65 % of its costs, which he says is in the 90th percentile for swimming pools nationwide.
“We’re not being irresponsible.” Traber said.
But he also confirmed that levies are likely here to stay.
“Five years from now we will probably be asking citizens what they want us to do again," he said.