The Corvallis City Council got some good news Tuesday night, as voters, by a wide margin, handily approved a renewal of the county's public safety and health levy.
Councilors were undoubtedly watching the county levy closely as they prepared for an important work session of their own today to examine the city's revenue and budget future. If voters had rejected the county levy (or even if the election had been close), it would have sent a strong message of caution to the council.
At their work session today, councilors are expected to try to make some progress on a couple of vital issues: How much additional revenue do they think the city will need in the next few years? And what's the best way to try to get that additional dough? (It's worth remembering that the council cannot make decisions at these work sessions; those have to wait for regular meetings. But the discussion today could point the way to the council's eventual decision.)
Benton County voters generally have been generous with ballot proposals to raise money. But every governmental entity in the county that raises money through ballot measures is fearful that their proposal will be the first to be rejected by voters — and that the first loss could trigger an avalanche of defeats that could end up fundamentally changing the face of government operations here.
So the council has some tough choices to make. Here are some points councilors should keep in mind:
• Timing is important — and the best time slots already may be gone. The council is looking at putting a revenue measure on the ballot in November 2018. That timing is critical, because the five-year local option levy that pays for some city services expires in June 2019. If voters reject the council's proposal in November 2018, that realistically gives the council one more shot at the ballot, in May 2019. In the meantime, by the time next November rolls around, voters already will have faced a January statewide election on health care taxes and a possible May bond issue from the Corvallis School District that seems to get larger every time we look. And it's possible that federal tax reform will end up hammering states like Oregon. In other words: If you think voters are cranky now about taxes, wait until next year.
• Presentation matters: Any kind of budget proposal for voters needs to be specific about what the money will pay for. And it needs to go hand-in-hand with information about how the city has been aggressive about trimming costs wherever possible. (City Manager Mark Shepard says he and his staff have trimmed expenses already by $1.2 million. Voters may want to see more.)
• Familiarity is an ally. Taxpayers are familiar with the city's local option levy. They are less familiar with the other proposals the council is considering, which include a local sales tax. Councilors already have evidence that voters are skeptical about that proposal. (The only possible argument that might win the day there is that a sales tax might force entities that don't pay property taxes to pony up, but that still seems a long shot to us, and the city still has considerable work ahead of it to iron out the details of a sales tax.)
If we were on the council, we would take a long look at boosting the local option levy (currently set at about 82 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value). We would be tempted to set the rate above $1, although somewhere shy of the $1.50 figure that's being bandied about. If voters say no, we would dial the number back and run the measure again in May 2019.
But the council needs to decide, and soon, what course to pursue. Councilors may think they have plenty of time before next November. They do not. (mm)