Central Point will refer gas-tax issue to voters

CENTRAL POINT — Rather than pass a controversial local fuel tax that would probably be challenged anyway, City Council members have agreed to put the matter to a public vote this fall.

The informal decision, which was not subject to a vote, came out of a council study session Tuesday, in which several topics were discussed, including development fees and street repairs.

First proposed last year, then tabled by city officials, the proposed three-cent-per-gallon fuel tax was raised again in recent months. It met with staunch opposition from local filling station owners and trucking industry advocates who urged the city to wait for an increase at the state level rather than implementing the local tax.

City Administrator Phil Messina said the city still needs a means of funding street repairs, which continue to increase in cost as they remain unaddressed. But with a referendum virtually assured by local businesses, city officials opted to take the matter straight to voters.

"Council wants to put a three-cent fuel tax to a vote of the people," Messina said this week.

"With the budget coming in April, it probably won't happen until September, but we're still trying to figure out what we have to do to get it going."

Messina said the city is eager to find a means of funding street work but council members realized, "even if they just passed the ordinance and the opposition were to start a campaign, I think the way it would have worked is that a referendum petition would have basically stopped collection of the fee until it could be voted on."

Grange Co-Op spokesman Bill Christie said he was pleased with the city's decision to allow voters to decide on the fuel tax, but said he felt a vote should be required on all new fees and taxes.

Christie said he had concerns about how the tax would be "sold to voters," and that the $5 street fee had simply been passed by the council and not taken to voters.

"I think taking a vote is a wonderful idea and exactly what the voters of Central Point deserve, but I also believe they deserve to vote on the street utility fee as well," Christie said.

"The people of Central Point have to realize there is no guarantee that the street utility fee is going to go away "¦ but we are going to educate them on all that. Oh, we are going to definitely educate the citizens."

Local real estate adviser Gary Hall, a consultant to the truck stop industry, said he was pleased with the decision and appreciative that council members allowed public comment during Tuesday's workshop, which was not initially slated to allow public comment.

"We support a statewide fuel tax," Hall said, "but what we don't support is making one town less competitive than the next with local taxes like this."

Additional topics discussed at the study session included a possible lowering of development fees to encourage new development in the city.

Messina said home builders had requested some relief at the city level.

"We have been talking to some home builders who are asking if there was any way we could reduce SDCs and building fees, and staff thinks that's a pretty good idea," said Messina.

"Staff will be bringing some information to a future meeting to see if we can't help the builders out by reducing the cost of building a house in Central Point."

In another topic discussed during the Tuesday meeting, city officials discussed pursuing a grant to fund a study of Pine Street to determine, and prioritize, needed repairs. Council members were divided over whether to fund a study to outline repairs the city can't afford to undertake.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

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