Nickel and Dimed in Portland

Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, left-wing or right-wing. It’s all about the money.

In Portland, Ore., voters were especially generous with money this past Election Day. They approved three tax measures, including a record-setting, half-billion dollar school bond to renovate three high schools, a K-8 school, update eight science labs and make seismic improvements. But it won’t be enough.

By late spring 2013, it wouldn’t be surprising if Portland school administrators are warning of layoffs and reminding everyone that the bond was just for buildings.

Only after the three tax measures were safely passed, did The Oregonian weigh in with this:

“The cumulative success of three general-election money measures may take some Multnomah County voters by surprise when they open their property tax bills next year. … ‘I’m sure it’s the case that there will be folks who didn’t take the time to think of what the total cost would be for all three measures,’ said Jeff Cogen, Multnomah County commission chairman. ‘They’ll get their tax bills and they will be upset….’

“Information provided to voters met all legal requirements, but it failed to provide the tally for a large swath of voters living in houses at, say, $300,000. That bill for all three measures passing? Nearly $850, for many households.”

Portland is one of America’s bluest cities in one of the bluest states. Yet the city’s politicians are as materialistic as any capitalist. They love money. But where to get it?

Downtown Portland is overrun with panhandlers. They’ve become part of the scenery. Residents compete with their stories about the aggressive panhandlers they’ve encountered — “I was panhandled four times before I even stepped out of my car!”

(Here’s my panhandling story: Several years ago I often gave money to an older woman with eye problems, who panhandled near the downtown library. One day I stopped at Whole Foods, a store I seldom visited because it’s so costly, and guess who I ran into? My panhandler. Portland: Where the panhandlers shop at Whole Foods.)

For Portland politicians, raising fees and taxes is their equivalent to panhandling.

The Oregonian newspaper has been tallying up the various taxes and fees that Mayor Sam Adams is leaving the city as his term finally ends. Among them: leaf fees from $15 to $65; parking rate hourly increases from $1.25 to $1.60 (plus Portland now checks parking meters on Sundays); city-owned garage fees raised from $165 a month to $195 and $200; parking fines increased from $24 to $39.

A sign of what’s to come: City Commissioner-elect Steve Novick hasn’t even been sworn in, but he’s already talking about expanding parking meters beyond downtown. This is how a desperate city raises money when it can’t attract jobs and business.

These fees and taxes wear people down, especially the kind of low-wage earners that  Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in her book, “Nickel and Dimed.” This is an invisible class even in a city like Portland, which brags about its weird liberalism.

At least the school bond, library district and Art Tax were approved by a vote of the people. But how many voters approving that school bond thought they were sticking it to rich, white Republicans? Or thought Portland’s overrated trust-fund babies would pick up the tab for the Art Tax?

It’s the nickel and dimed who will look at that $35 a head Art Tax when it comes due and consider what it could have bought them: a rare night out at the movies; an even rarer night out at a concert; part of a membership at the Portland Art Museum; half of a nice dinner out with a friend. These are Portlanders who have learned to settle for less, yet are expected to be generous at funding other people’s politics.

A man who lives in my neighborhood and is self-employed in Portland’s celebrated “creative class” has been hurt by the economy. He told me in September that if the school bond passed, he calculated that his property taxes will be $6,000 – which is what he pays for health insurance. So to pay for his property taxes, he will give up his health insurance.

I wonder what Dr. Marguerite P. Cohen would have to say about that. She wrote a letter to The Oregonian a few days after the election:

“Yes, I voted to raise my taxes: for schools, for libraries, for arts. I voted against the false economy of the 1990s in which Bill Sizemore and Don McIntire told us we could cut our taxes and not affect our public services. Now I’d like to raise my taxes again and eliminate the Northwest Forest Pass, so I can walk in the woods without a permit. That would be a bargain indeed.”

What Dr. Cohen does not appreciate is that Americans are basically fair people. They will pay for public services they receive. They object to paying for an ever-expensive bureaucracy that doesn’t deliver good results.

In the 1990’s when I was living in California, a friend of mine was elected to the state Assembly. Overnight I watched someone who had exuded a Ralph Nader-like persona suddenly discover the good life that a six-figure salary can bring. He worked hard and earned his salary as an elected official, but it was the tangential goodies that piled up and warped his “public service.”

The fleets of cars, for example, available to elected state officials.

For his personal use in his home district, my friend was given a choice of cars ranging from economy to luxury. He selected the second-most luxurious (this was politically astute; as long as he didn’t pick the top of the line, he could legitimately say he was saving the taxpayers’ money). For his and other elected officials’ use in Sacramento, there was a separate fleet of cars maintained in a garage under the state capitol that they could quickly check out or have delivered to the airport.

Multiply that example times thousands of other government freebies across the U.S. that aren’t really free, and you will understand why ordinary Americans sign petitions seeking tax cuts. Our government budgets grow, but the services don’t get better.

In August, I attended the Portland Public Schools board meeting where the half-billion dollar bond was approved for the ballot. This was expected – the campaign was already under way. What was surprising to me was the giddiness on the part of school officials when they also designated $1.5 million in the bond as “planning money” for the future: They were already looking ahead to the next bond in a series of bonds that are expected over the next 30 years.

If the bonds are timed to coincide with presidential races to take advantage of Portland’s high Democratic turnout, taxpayers could find themselves paying multiple school bonds concurrently.

The grins on display at that school board meeting reminded me of my friend years ago, showing off his brand new car (he would later laugh when he got his first speeding ticket).

Yes, who doesn’t like more money.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


  • “He told me in September that if the school bond passed, he calculated that his property taxes will be $6,000 – which is what he pays for health insurance. So to pay for his property taxes, he will give up his health insurance.”

    Pamela, this would be a powerful statement if his taxes were being raised from zero to $6,000, but based on your numbers quoted earlier (and my own knowledge of Portland property tax rates), it is more likely his taxes are being raised by around $1,000. A significant sum, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of melodrama equating to not being able to afford health insurance.

    I have incredible respect for you due to the way you present your arguments — especially when I disagree with you — but this seems very sensationalized and rings false. I look forward to your next post.

  • Matt:

    That is a fair criticism; his taxes did not go from zero to $6,000. However, when a person pores over his budget looking for places to make serious cuts, and he sees that his property taxes are going to equal his health insurance, it’s enough to give him ideas — particularly if he has noticed that even people with health insurance don’t always get very good medical care.

    The politics of nickle and diming call for a constant drip, drip, drip — small, incremental changes that wear a person down over time.

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