City leaders ask for top priorities on transportation, property tax reform.

FILE PHOTO - Gresham Mayor Shane BemisMetropolitan area mayors say more issues unite than divide them, so they want to make their collective voice heard in Salem and elsewhere.

Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, who has led Oregon's fourth most populous city for a decade, is the leader of the Metropolitan Mayors Consortium that has 22 member cities.

Bemis and other mayors spoke out Thursday (March 9) on some wide-ranging issues, such as more state aid for street maintenance and highway and transit projects and changes in Oregon's two-decade-old system of property tax limits.

They also spoke on more specialized issues, such as extending legal immunity for recreation workers and letting cities negotiate their own rights-of-way fees with special districts.

But at a news conference at the Capitol, mayors agreed to disagree about whether the Legislature should repeal Oregon's 1985 ban on rent control by cities and counties.

Mayors Ted Wheeler of Portland and Mark Gamba of Milwaukie favor House Bill 2004, which would lift the ban. But Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay opposes the bill, which he said would not solve the underlying problem.

Still, the mayors agree on key priorities that mostly align with those of the League of Oregon Cities, which represents 241 cities.

If lawmakers fail to come up with funding for transportation needs — the most recent state measure dates back to 2009 — Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp said the continued congestion would be "detrimental" to the region.

But even if the Legislature approves such a measure, the region may be compelled to come up with other sources for a host of big highway and transit projects — perhaps a bond issue or tolls.

Although President Donald Trump and congressional leaders from both parties have talked about increased spending on roads, bridges and other public works, Wheeler said the region should assume little or no federal support.

"I think that is a search for fool's gold," he said. "I believe the federal government is not going to step up in a significant way. That means state, regional and local governments are going to have to be more innovative and resourceful in transportation funding."

Property tax limits

For several cycles dating back to 2011, city officials have urged lawmakers to refer changes in Oregon's statewide property tax limits, which voters approved three times in the 1990s. The ballot measures limit the rates for schools and all other local governments, and the property values that are taxable.

The Senate Finance and Revenue Committee conducted two public hearings in February on the changes contained in Senate Joint Resolution 3, which still would not alter key limits.

But Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden said taxable values have gotten so out of hand in 20 years that "you may be paying twice the taxes on a home that is exactly the same assessed value" elsewhere.

The mayors favor a gradual shift back to real market value as the basis for property taxation, although averaged to even out peaks and troughs in sales.

The mayors also favor letting voters approve operating levies that exceed the property tax rate caps for specified periods. Bond issues are exempt from the caps.

"If a community wants to vote to have operating money for its swimming pool, and it is already at the compression limits, it cannot," Ogden said. "This simply provides equity to the taxpayers."

Milwaukie's Gamba said even the fastest-growing cities will run up against the statewide rate limits. According to the League of Oregon Cities, 60 percent of cities already do.

Court decisions

Two other priorities of the mayors involve decisions by the Oregon Supreme Court.

A couple of bills (SB 327, HB 2792) would make it clear that immunity against legal liability extends to employees, not just the governments that own parks and other recreational facilities. The Supreme Court ruled a year ago that only the landowners were shielded against lawsuits, not employees.

A different bill (SB 504) backed by the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association would eliminate immunity altogether and allow lawsuits alleging negligence.

The mayors also are resisting legislation that would limit cities' authority to collect right-of-way fees from special districts. The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that cities could do so, although governments do not usually tax each other, if the fees were "reasonable" and the proceeds used for regulatory purposes and not their general funds.

A bill (SB 202) backed by special districts would limit city fees to recovery of "actual, direct costs."

The issue has arisen in both Clackamas and Washington counties.

"We are not looking to overtax our citizens," said Happy Valley Mayor Lori DeRemer. "But we have to repair the possible destruction that may have happened" with work on city streets.

Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway said he thinks his city can work out its own agreement with Clean Water Services, the agency that provides wastewater treatment in most of Washington County. The agency is independent of the county, but county commissioners serve as its governing board.

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