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City gas tax dead — for now

The Dalles City Council opted Thursday to forego a gas tax measure on the November ballot and work with Wasco County officials to come up with some type of joint proposal for spring. “It puts it on a timeline rather than kicks it down the road forever, whether that means March or May (ballot),” said Councilor Dan Spatz, who came up with an alternate proposal.

He gained majority support for pursuing some type of a county-wide gas tax that would replace the city’s current tax of 3 cents per gallon.

He said even though The Dalles was the only town with gas stations, he thought an effort should be made to help Dufur, Mosier and Maupin also get fueling stops.

He said charging stations for electric-powered vehicles should also be established across the county, and a transmission fee levied for transportation-related projects.

The next tier of Spatz’ proposal was to increase vehicle registration fees county-wide. That revenue would be split between the city and county for road maintenance.

He said, in addition, the local governments needed to work together to get Congress to re-establish sustainable timber harvests, which were at the root of the county’s funding problem.

If the revenue lost from logging cutbacks in national forests could be regained, Spatz said the gas tax and registration fees could be adjusted downward — if the county agreed to share the federal money it received.

Spatz’ motion to develop this plan for some type of ballot proposal in March or May was approved by Councilors Carolyn Wood and Bill Dick, who also supported the current gas tax proposal.

“There’s leadership here to get something done,” said Dick.

The elected body had convened at a special meeting Aug. 14 to decide whether to proceed with a November measure to double the local gas tax of 3 cents per gallon.

Nolan Young, city manager, estimated the increase would generate about $450,000 a year to pay for a backlog of street repairs.

Police Chief Jay Waterbury told the council he supported the tax and figured it would cost his family a little more than $21 per year.

“I, as a citizen, would like an opportunity to have a say and a vote on it,” he said. Councilor Tim McGlothlin said, with the federal government considering a 12 cent-per-gallon increase and the state looking at 5 cents, the cost if the city measure was approved would actually be 20 cents per gallon. He said that would adversely affect senior citizens with fixed incomes and families who were struggling financially.

“There’s just more and more things that are taking a bite out of monthly incomes and people are rejecting any tax increases,” he said.

McGlothlin said he knew that both the city and county needed more revenue for road maintenance and repair, but felt more effort needed to be put into streamlining budgets and find other ways to come up with funding.

“I’m looking at the possibility of give and take here rather than just raising rates and taxes,” he said.

He also felt that it was important to find out how much money that increases in federal and state gas taxes would bring the city before moving forward with any plan.

Councilor Linda Miller agreed with McGlothlin and voted against Spatz’ proposal.

She and Mayor Steve Lawrence said they had received a lot of negative feedback about an increase in the gas tax, but also had constituents push to let voters decide the issue.

Lawrence felt that Spatz’ ideas should be given further consideration.

He and Miller were also in agreement with McGlothlin and have advocated for the past year that the city scrutinize the general fund budget to see if more money can be found for infrastructure upgrades.

“I think there are a lot of possibilities if we cool our jets and take time to consider them,” said Lawrence on Thursday.

The council convened to decide how to proceed after the county commission rejected a property tax plan for a road district earlier this week.

After receiving mostly negative feedback from citizens, county officials decided to look at raising vehicle registration fees instead, among other options.

Tyler Stone, county administrative officer, was present at Thursday’s council meeting, and said doubling the current $43 registration fee would generate about $750,000 each year for the county and $400,000-450,000 for the city.

Young said the city actually needed more than that amount. He said the number had been kept low for the gas tax proposal to increase its chances of success.

Stone said the county was looking at floating an advisory ballot in November to ask voters whether they would support a vehicle registration fee increase or a lesser rate for the road district tax.

Once the city opted out of participation in the district, the millage rate had to be bumped to $2.03 per $1,000 of assessed value to cover the $1.6 million needed by the county.

Council members decided not to participate in the district largely because the added tax would lead to compression and a significant loss of revenue for Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue.

The fire district, because of state law that caps the total amount of taxes that can be collected, stood to lose more than $200,000 per year.

Chief Robert Palmer told the council several months ago that loss would result in a reduction in manpower and services.

Young had recommended the gas tax hike because it spread the burden of paying for street improvements on everyone who used city streets, and not just property owners.

He addressed statements made by opponents of the county’s road district proposal that it is unfair to have residents outside the city covering the cost of road maintenance.

He said the county receives a larger share of vehicle registration fees, even though 56 percent of Wasco County’s population lives in the city and provides more than 50 percent of those funds.

Conversely, he said many people who lived outside the city contribute to the gas tax by buying fuel at local stations, which helps pay for city roads.

Spatz said he believes taxpayers, first and foremost, want to see cooperation among public agencies. He said the city and county had a strong record of partnering to get things done and were likely to come up with a solution if they worked together.

Spatz said his plan was contingent upon both the gas tax and registration fee increase measures meeting approval from voters.

“We can’t have one pass and one fail,” he said.

Attorney Gene Parker said the proposal would have to be written up separately due to a state law that prohibits more than one issue from being addressed on a ballot measure.

Proposals will be worked out at future meetings and brought before the public in upcoming months.

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