Portland City Council needs to do a better job at delivering the promises made on ballot measures, according to a new report from the Portland City Auditor.
The audit, released Tuesday, looked at four recent taxes and bonds approved by Portland voters: the arts tax, which asks each resident for $35 each year; the cannabis tax, which put a 3% charge on recreational marijuana sales; the $258 million affordable housing bond; and the 10 cent per gallon local gas tax.
The report found the city did not always keep promises about how the revenue generated would be spent and who would oversee the programs created by the measures.
The audit also found the city failed to issue some of the reports and audits promised that would have kept voters informed about what was happening with the money. Notably, the annual public report promised for the gas tax was never issued nor has the city started the audit it was expected to conduct for the arts, cannabis, and gas taxes.
The audit notes that, though the city delivered on the “overall commitments” made by the measures, voters were left in the dark about how much revenue would go to specific groups or programs.
For example, the measure for the cannabis tax promised to use revenue to support services for drug and alcohol treatment, public safety, and small businesses. But the audit found during the first two years of the tax, nearly 80% of the revenue went to public safety. One year, services providing drug and alcohol treatment received no funding at all.
In a statement, Independent City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero wrote that measures that fail to deliver what voters expect could make future revenue-generating measures more difficult to pass.
“Following through on commitments is key to retaining voter trust,” wrote Hull Caballero. “If the City continues to ask voters to fund City services through new taxes, it needs to deliver fully on its promises or voters may not oblige.”
Jenny Scott, the lead auditor, said in an interview that the reason the government often fell short of its promises may be due, in part, to Portland’s commission form of government, which has elected officials overseeing bureaus, often for a short amount of time.
For the gas tax, the commissioner who helped write the ballot measure lost reelection just after the tax was passed. A different commissioner started overseeing the Bureau of Transportation when it was time to start implementing the tax. And then another commissioner took over the bureau once the tax was in place.
“There’s a risk that commitments can fall through the cracks or diverge from what was promised to voters when there are changes in leadership coupled with these unclear commitments” said Scott.
In a written response, the city commissioners and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said they agreed that measures should be clear and realistic, so that voters can “make informed, appropriate decisions.”