Activist files to repeal county income tax

Gresham tax activist Don McIntire filed an initiative petition Tuesday to repeal Multnomah County’s income tax for schools and other services, prompting warnings from school leaders that eliminating the tax would mean substantial cuts.

If the measure qualifies for the ballot and passes, it would jettison the 1.25 percent tax for 2004 and 2005, cutting budgets beginning next school year. The tax on 2003 income, due by April 15, would remain.

McIntire and other opponents of Oregon’s only county income tax must submit 14,714 valid signatures by Aug. 4 to qualify the initiative for the November general election ballot. They could also submit signatures by June 23 to hit the September ballot.

McIntire helped spearhead Oregon’s tax revolt in 1990, when he co-authored Measure 5 to limit property tax growth statewide. He said Tuesday that the campaign will be fueled by voters learning how much they owe in county taxes.

Many voters also will be upset at decisions made by “the liberal ladies” on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, he predicted, from authorizing snow days for county workers to working outside the public eye to allow gay marriage.

“What we’re doing as a public service is giving the citizens another chance to vote on this after they’ve been able to reflect a little bit,” McIntire said. “When they actually have to pay the tax, it may sharpen their focus.”

National notoriety

Multnomah County voters passed Measure 26-48 in May with 58 percent of the vote. Approval of the three-year tax came amid fears of shortened school years statewide and middle income flight from Portland.

It followed a spate of national notoriety about Portland Public Schools’ plans to eliminate nearly five weeks of school. Higher business taxes and a teacher agreement to work 10 days without pay staved off that threat.

The tax is projected to provide $128 million a year: $89 million for the county’s eight school districts, $32 million for county public safety and social services, and $7 million for tax collection and audits.

It costs a single taxpayer with $30,000 in Oregon taxable income $344 a year. A couple with $60,000 in Oregon taxable income owes $688.

Anticipating McIntire’s filing, social service providers said Monday that eliminating the tax would mean cuts in basic services to senior citizens and other vulnerable residents.

Portland Public Schools leaders said eliminating the tax would chop 15 percent from the district’s general fund next school year, the equivalent of losing more than 50 days of school.

The Gresham-Barlow School District would lose $10 million — or 12.5 percent — of a general fund budget expected to stay flat at about $80 million next school year, Superintendent Ken Noah said Tuesday.

If made proportionately, that budget cut would eliminate about 100 teachers, 50 classified staff and eight administrators, Noah said. It would also eliminate funding for extracurricular activities, from sports to drama, he said.

“You sometimes get numb to saying these things, but what I’ve laid out for you is the reality of what we would have to do,” Noah said. “It’s not any kind of threat.”

“Always more taxes”

McIntire, one of three co-petitioners on the initiative, said he wants to see government cut generous health and retirement benefits, contract out mundane tasks and cut the pay of managers and other top officials instead of seeking more money.

“Their eternal answer is always more taxes,” he said.

Last May, supporters of the tax raised more than $700,000 for their campaign and marshaled hundreds of parent and union volunteers.

Nancy Hamilton, a leader of the parent activist group HOPE, said parents are tired of fighting for money. But she said they will rally again if the repeal initiative qualifies for the ballot.

“Before, parents were scared, and now they’re angry,” said Hamilton, who notified her group membership Monday of the pending repeal effort. “If you do something to threaten their children, you will find that parents have an unlimited capacity to be in the trenches doing hard work.”

Citizen initiatives targeting county government are rare. But the county’s 14,714 signature requirement, set by state law, is much less than the city of Portland’s standard, which requires 25,775 valid signatures.

Two volunteer-driven efforts with little financial backing have come close to hitting the city’s higher signature bar since 2000, though both ultimately failed to make the ballot.

Jason Williams, executive director of McIntire’s Taxpayer Association, said he doesn’t expect to raise big money for the campaign.

The group will work with Citizens for a Sound Economy, which opposes taxes nationwide, he said. Last month, Citizens for a Sound Economy helped prompt Multnomah County voters to side against Measure 30, a statewide tax increase.

Scott Learn: 503-294-7657;