Portland City Council has agreed to lift the administrative cap on the city’s Arts Education and Access Fund, better known as the arts tax. Dismal collection rates have dogged the arts tax since its inception in 2012. The Portland Revenue Bureau estimates 1 in 4 eligible citizens just skips it.
But the terms voters agreed to require the revenue bureau to spend no more than 5 percent of gross collections over a five-year period.
Arts advocates have argued that the 5 percent administrative cap has hogtied the bureau from chasing delinquent accounts, and is inconsistent with what other departments — for example, the Portland Water Bureau — spend on bill collections.
But critics of the arts tax, like Commissioner Dan Saltzman, say waiving the cap would be out of step with voters’ wishes.
Commissioners Nick Fish and Chloe Eudaly once again came together with Mayor Ted Wheeler to present revisions. (They've collaborated once before on arts policy.)
Wheeler said the changes should give the city a chance to boost collections appropriately, while maintaining public trust in the arts tax.
“I want to remind everybody this was brought to City Hall a number of years ago by the public,” Wheeler said. “The public, if they so choose, could pull it back. But in the meanwhile it is our obligation to run it as best as we can. I believe the changes made in this ordinance give us the opportunity to better manage this program and to be more accountable in the administration of this program.”
To address the concerns about accountability, the proposal orders that Council revisit collection costs every year. Further, the advisory board overseeing the arts tax will continue offering annual reports.
Council also decided to expand some exemptions for the tax.
The terms currently allow an exemption for households in which no one is earning above the federal poverty level. In a household of three, under the 2017 federal guidelines, that would mean a threshold of $20,420. The changes would widen the exemption to double federal poverty guidelines. (In the example of a three-person household, the threshold would increase to $40,000.)
The $35 annual arts tax is due on April 17.