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Opponents: Council vote threatens to stall transportation funding

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"We have a historical funding problem with street maintenance," explained Mayor Jim Clinton at the City Council meeting on August 5. "The only solution I see is to ask voters if they want to use a fuel tax to solve that structural problem."

Over the past several weeks, the idea to implement a gas tax to generate funds to repair Bend's crumbling streets has taken shape. But the idea is not without controversy or opponents, and cannot happen without process—like any such tax measure, it requires approval from voters.

At its August 5 meeting, City Council went ahead and voted 4-3 to support placing a gas tax on a March special election ballot. But the vote came as a surprise to some of the councilors—and came before City Council had even voted on an ordinance to create a street funding committee to hash out the details for a broader transportation funding plan.

The matter of whether to refer the gas tax to voters wasn't even on Council's agenda for the evening, but Councilor Sally Russell made an initial motion, which was seconded by Councilor Nathan Boddie. All that had been scheduled for the meeting was passing a resolution to create a subcommittee and task it with specific duties.

In deliberations on Wednesday, Councilors Doug Knight, Casey Roats, and Victor Chudowsky (participating by phone), expressed strong opposition to the vote of their fellow four councilors. "There's enough uncertainty in the community," Knight said, expressing concern that a vote in favor of placing a fuel tax on the ballot would make the work of the committee seem like a forgone conclusion. "It need not be top down."

Clinton clarified that the vote was largely symbolic, and does not actually place anything on the ballot. Still, his fellow councilors expressed concern that the vote essentially short-circuited any productive conversations and consideration about the matter.

"If you go ahead with this motion, the committee you're forming here is essentially a joke," said Chudowsky, adding that several of the organizations that had signed on to participate in the committee process will probably drop out, a threat that seems to have come true: Though the councilors who voted in favor of putting a gas tax on the ballot in March expressed skepticism that any community partners would walk away from the process over Council's vote, some have already pulled out. Erin Foote-Marlowe, executive director for Bend 2030, the organization charged with co-convening the committee process alongside the Bend Chamber of Commerce, says Council's action has prompted her organization to schedule a vote for Friday to determine whether they will continue to participate in the process.

"I think the Council made a choice that they believe will ultimately earn the City the most funding for transportation," Foote-Marlowe told the Source. "And even though there's no requirement to come up with a non-gas tax option, the committee should still look at options including the general fund."

Still, if the Bend 2030 board decides to remain involved, Foote-Marlowe says she hopes the group can help lead the conversation. The group of gas station owners being represented by former mayor and attorney Jeff Eager has already bowed out of the process.

"My clients are not going to participate in the City's process as established in the final version of the resolution," Eager told the Source. "We believe voters deserve a process that truly evaluates all options, including those that do not include raising taxes on Bend residents and small businesses."

And the Bend Chamber is suspending work on the committee until its Board of Directors can discuss the issue at its August 25 meeting.

"With Council voting to place the issue on the March ballot without going through this process," Bend Chamber Executive Director Tim Casey told the Source, "our executive committee felt the outcome for a tax increase was preordained."

Other parties suggested by Council to participate in the committee include a fuel-reliant small business owner, neighborhood associations, the Environmental Center, Commute Options, the Central Oregon Builders Association, the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, City of Bend Accessibility Advisory Committee, and a locally-owned fuel retailer. So far, Jeff Monson from Commute Options has confirmed that his group still plans to participate. The Environmental Center has not decided.

The objective of the committee includes gathering clear information about potential revenue sources, agreeing on acceptable pavement conditions, setting a financial goal, focusing first on street maintenance, developing a timeline and identifying potential funding sources for multimodal transportation and sidewalk needs, and determining what to advocate for on the state level.

The committee also will include two members of Council. Mayor Clinton nominated Councilors Roats and Chudowsky in addition to Russell, but both declined to participate. "You disagree, so you're taking your toys and leaving the sandbox," Boddie said in response to their refusal to participate.

But Roats objected to that characterization.

"I'm not just taking my ball and going home," Roats countered. "I need to be able to take this to my base of support and have a leg to stand on."

In the end, the debate hinged more on the potential political impact of Council's symbolic gas tax vote, and less on whether such a tax is a good or necessary approach to funding street repair.

"My concern is that we're going to find ourselves where people aren't against the fuel tax but might find themselves against the actions of the Council," Roats warned.

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