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By Janie Har July 5, 2012

Will passage of light-rail ballot measure in Clackamas County increase taxes?

Clackamas County residents will vote Sept. 18 on a measure that, if approved, will require county officials to get voter approval before spending county resources for "financing, design, construction, or operation of any public rail transit system." Yes, that means MAX.

Conservatives tend to back Measure 3-401 as a way to hip-check county commissioners who make spending decisions. In response, Clackamas County Democrats issued a statement saying they would fight the measure. The statement was published in the letters section of the Clackamas Review.  

Democrats argue that passage will stymie economic development, throttle local government and cost taxpayers money. Actually, it’s more than just costing more money -- the claim is that the measure will increase taxes: "Let’s be very clear on 3-401. Its passage will hurt our county, cripple economic growth, and increase our taxes with excessive special elections.  A ‘no’ vote is sensible and reasonable."

Who wants higher taxes for more elections? Nobody, right? Or was this just a scare tactic by Democrats?

PolitiFact Oregon recalled a similar argument when a similar issue was on the ballot in Clackamas County last year. Supporters of one urban renewal ballot measure tried to scare voters away from a competing ballot measure by arguing that countywide elections would cost "a fortune" compared with geographically limited elections. We ruled that statement False because adding a voter question to a primary or general election doesn’t really cost the elections division extra.  

We acknowledge that this is a different situation. If voters approve Measure 3-401, future questions about light-rail related decisions will need to go to voters during any one of four authorized regular elections every year. Again, it doesn’t cost much money, if anything, to add a question to a primary or general election.

But it will cost money if it’s the only issue on a ballot -- and the election is held just to address that one question. Want an example? Measure 3-401 is the only issue on the Sept. 18  ballot. Steve Kindred, county elections manager, estimates the election could cost around $125,000. That’s real money.

But the claim is that the ballot measure will "increase our taxes with excessive special elections." Will it?

The answer is no. There is no special tax for elections. County residents pay property taxes, which grow at a predetermined rate, and the money pays for various county agencies, including elections. Kindred checked with staff and said nobody there can recall a time when the tax base was raised to cover the cost of additional elections.

Just to be on the super safe side, we checked with the county assessor, Bob Vroman. He, too, said that more elections do not translate into higher taxes.

Before we rule, we should include what the spokesman for the Clackamas County Democrats said when we put the tax-raising question to him. Remember, this is a statement that went to media outlets and elected officials. It was published in the Clackamas Review.

"Special elections cost money, that’s all it means," said Peter Toll. He added, "The county is compelled to run an election at our expense. It’s going to cost tax money."

Well, then. So much for precision in language, or even giving voters accurate information.

Approving Measure 3-401 will not increase taxes. Elections cost taxpayer money, but the election may have been held anyway. Taxes in Clackamas County will go up, but for reasons outside the frequency of elections.

We rule the statement False.

Our Sources

Clackamas Review, "Local politicians need to build trust; Clackamas County Dems vote to oppose 3-401," Letters to the Editor, June 26, 2012
Interview with Peter Toll, Clackamas County Democrats, June 26, 2012
Emails from Peter Toll, June 25, July 3, 2012
Emails from Steve Kindred, Clackamas County elections manager, June 25-26, 28, 2012
Interview with Bob Vroman, Clackamas County tax assessor, July 3, 2012
PolitiFact Oregon, "Will a countywide vote on urban renewal cost taxpayers "a fortune" and an alternative backed by Clackamas County commissioners cost less?" Oct. 22, 2011

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