Advisory committee recommends levy vote, but urges long-term thinking
Is 10 cents enough? Is five years a start?
Those are the two main questions left unanswered by an advisory committee, convened by Metro, charged with looking at a proposal to ask voters for a property tax hike to pay for improvements at the region's natural areas and parks.
The committee, meeting for the third time Tuesday, endorsed a draft letter saying a five-year property tax levy for natural areas maintenance "is a reasonable first step in addressing a longer-term problem."
The problem, as Metro and committee members see it, is a shortfall in funding to pay for maintenance at Metro's 16,000 acres of natural areas and parks, most acquired after voters approved bond measures in 1995 and 2006.
Committee members said an initial idea from Metro staff of a property tax levy of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value – $20 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 – was not ambitious enough. Every cent in a levy would generate about $1 million for natural areas maintenance.
Instead, the draft letter says Metro should look at a levy of 10 to 12 cents, and poll on whether to go higher than that.
"Metro should consider a larger request and the panel suggests that the final amount align with any additional polling results and whether or not a strong campaign can be organized," said the letter, which is directed toward Metro chief operating officer Martha Bennett.
The levy, which can fund projects for only five years before it has to go before the voters again, should not be considered a permanent solution, committee members said.
"The panel recommends carefully prioritizing spending to maximize effectiveness and be sensitive to the 'sixth-year challenge,' or what happens in the years after the levy is complete," it said.
The panel recommended that Metro convene another group to work on a long-term, regional solution.
Most of the discussion Tuesday morning focused around the equity piece of the letter, and how to address issues of equitable access to the region's natural areas without alienating likely voters.
"Equity does not mean equality," said Marcelo Bonta, executive director, Center for Diversity & the Environment. "Looking at the past, who's been disadvantaged and who's been advantaged – equity is a way to remedy some of that."
But John Griffiths, a board member at the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, said equity can be perceived as a loaded word.
"We're trying to pass a measure…we're not called to address social justice issues or try to correct history to the extent that people believe there's inequity," he said. "The thing I don't want to see this measure come down to is a debate about social justice. I want to see it be about land and opening it up to all people."
Bonta pointed out that social justice and equity don't have to be big, drawn-out items. For example, he said, acknowledging that Metro's natural areas are considered ceded lands by many of the region's Native Americans could go a long way.
After the group seemed headed for an impasse, it was Bennett who suggested language for their letter to her.
"Metro should be intentional in designing levy projects to address barriers that affect historically underserved communities," Bennett proposed as language for addressing equity in the natural areas. The committee endorsed her proposal.
The committee is set to deliver its findings to the Metro Council on Aug. 16.
Note: An earlier version of this story was not precise about the property tax impacts of the potential levy; it did not specify that the cost would be $20 a year on a home with an assessed value of $200,000. This version has been corrected.
Opt In panelists want habitat improved at natural areas, but cool to improving access (June 15, 2012)
Polling says region's voters could support natural areas levy (April 10, 2012)
More specifics discussed about natural areas tax levy proposal (Feb. 7, 2012)