Top Portland officials are pushing to place a five-year tax levy on the November 2020 ballot in order to fund the city’s struggling parks system.
The levy, as currently proposed by the city's Parks & Recreation bureau, would cost the average household about $11 per month. (The average household, according to a Portland State University study done for the bureau, has a median assessed home value of $195,000 — far below the city’s market values due to voter-enacted property tax limits from the 1990s.)
If passed by voters, the measure would enact a levy of $0.80 per $1,000 of assessed value. This would provide the city's Parks & Recreation bureau with an estimated $48 million per year on average, according to Everett Wild, policy director with the mayor’s office and liaison to the parks bureau.
The money would go toward operating costs for the cash-strapped system.
Last year, the city had to make drastic cuts after discovering a more than $6 million shortfall during the budget cycle. The pandemic has only worsened the bureau's financial situation. With community centers, summer camps and swimming pools all shuttered, the bureau has had to go forgo user fees.
The November ballot is growing crowded. In the midst of an economic crisis, voters could potentially be asked to consider a bond for Portland Public Schools, a $3 billion transportation measure from Metro, and now a tax levy for the city’s parks.
But city officials have decided they can’t afford to wait.
"With facilities and programs closed since early March, we have missed months of the revenues that allows us to provide the recreation experience Portlanders cherish," read a note sent out Tuesday by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Parks & Recreation Bureau Director Adena Long.
This loss of revenue will make it difficult to start services back up again. Wild said, if the city waits until May to get something on the ballot, they wouldn't receive the funding in time to get seasonal staff in place to open up classes, community centers, and pools by next summer.
So the bureau’s moving full steam ahead with a five-year-levy for November. On July 22nd, the measure is scheduled to go before the council, who will decide whether to refer it to the ballot.
The measure will be supported by the mayor, who’s overseen the bureau since the death of former Commissioner Nick Fish. In a statement, Wheeler said he was hoping to continue the path set by his former colleague.
"I am proud to continue Commissioner Fish's vision for financial stability and excited to talk with my Council colleagues about referring a levy to voters this November," said Wheeler. "With this additional funding, Portland Parks & Recreation will be able to center equity, restart recreation in time for summer 2021, make sure cost isn’t a barrier for any Portlander, and improve the condition of our parks."
As OPB previously reported, the parks bureau had initially been considering both a bond and a tax levy to fund the system.
The capital bond would have been used to address the bureau’s backlog of deferred maintenance, estimated at nearly half-billion-dollars. That includes park assets like picnic tables, community centers, roofs and restrooms that need to be renovated.
But polling done for the bureau shows Portland voters didn’t have the stomach for both the bond and the levy.
According to a survey conducted by FM3 Research last month, only 30% of people polled would vote yes if presented with both measures.
Parks officials say they’re continuing to work with community members and organizations to determine exactly how the money would be distributed and how the levy would impact the user fees that the city charges. Wild said, while the parks bureau will likely still charge fees for people who can afford it, money from the levy could be used to cancel these fees for low-income Portlanders.