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Gas tax plan raises hackles

CENTRAL POINT — City officials Thursday will consider implementing a 3-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel for badly needed street repairs and annual paving expenses.

Faced with shrinking revenues from building fees, heavy road wear from commercial truck traffic and inadequate revenue from state gas tax dollars, city officials have said a fuel tax would shift the cost of street repairs to the drivers who cause the most damage to city roads.

If the City Council approves the tax, Central Point's monthly street utility fee would be reduced by the amount collected in fuel taxes. For example, if the fuel tax raised $450,000, the street utility fee would be reduced from the current $5 per month per residence to $2 per month. If fuel tax revenues reached $550,000, the fee would be reduced to around $1 per month, and if the fuel tax raised $650,000, the street utility fee would be eliminated.

Matt Samitore, the city's interim community development director, said most households filling their tanks exclusively inside city limits would pay $34.20 per year in new gas taxes, based on national fuel-use averages. That would be slightly more than half of the current $60 per year street utility fee.

Response to the proposed tax was mixed during an unscientific sampling of local business owners and motorists who were filling their tanks at the Pilot Travel Center.

Don Samec, who was traveling back to his home near Vancouver, said he "almost didn't stop" in Central Point because fuel prices were already higher than they were elsewhere during his trip.

"We were sorry we filled up here, but we needed coffee," he said. "We're going up to Vancouver and it's only going to get cheaper from here.

"If they'd've raised it another few cents, we probably wouldn't have stopped at all," he said.

Jason Orton of Rogue River said road repairs would be a nice trade-off for paying a few more cents at the pump.

"I actually don't mind if they add three cents," he said. "It would be nice to see some quality improvements to the streets. As long as gas stays down below three dollars a gallon, I don't think anyone would even notice."

Linda Ely of Carson City, Nev., said she stopped at Pilot without much concern for the gas price because she and her dog, Sage, like the national chain. Cheree Clark of Central Point was unhappy to learn of the proposed tax.

"I think it's stupid. Some of the roads definitely need to be fixed but we already pay too much for gas," Clark said.

Bill Christie, petroleum operations manager for Grange Co-Op, cited concerns for already struggling businesses. He said businesses would have additional costs to collect the tax and lose income when customers buy fuel in nearby cities that don't charge a fuel tax.

In 2001, then-mayor Bill Walton proposed a penny-per-gallon diesel tax. Grange Co-Op officials and other local businesses thwarted the idea by forming a Coalition Against Discriminatory Fuel Taxes and speaking out at a City Council meeting.

"It wouldn't take much to get that (coalition) back together," Christie said.

"The big problem I have with the whole thing is the street utility fee was supposed to fund all the current street improvement projects and what they have planned," he said. "So instead of doing like they said, now they're going the other direction and want to impose a fuel tax and a diesel tax, which is totally unfair."

Christie said customers would likely see an increase of 6 cents or more at the pump if the costs of collecting the tax are added in.

Paul Romain, a spokesman for the Oregon Petroleum Marketers Association, which advocates for businesses that sell fuel, said his organization would encourage bringing the tax to a popular vote if the City Council approves it.

"We don't mind a statewide gas tax, and we don't care if the cities get 100 percent of it," Romain said. "Our problem is when one jurisdiction has one and one doesn't. It becomes a competitive nightmare."

Chris Clayton, the city's deputy public works director, said Central Point streets have volumes of heavy commercial truck traffic more typically associated with larger cities.

Portions of Pine Street between LaRue Drive and Penninger Road, repaved at a cost of $100,000 in 2001, "would have lasted 25 years but are completely worn out after just eight years," said Clayton.

If approved, the fuel tax would fund annual street overlay costs as well as reconstruction or renovation of major city streets such as Freeman Road (from Oak Street to Hopkins Road), Tenth Street (from Hazel Street to Lathrop Street) and South Haskell Street, south of Pine Street.

Local managers of the Pilot Travel Center and USF Reddaway, a trucking company, said they could not comment on the proposal. A call to corporate offices for Pilot in Knoxville, Tenn., was not immediately returned.

Christie, of the Grange Co-op said, voters should have a voice in deciding whether the city should tax fuel rather than leaving the issue to the City Council to decide.

"We want a vote of the citizens of Central Point," he said. "We don't want the City Council to just vote on this thing and then it becomes law," he said.

"It's already looking like we're going to get a state and federal (fuel tax) increase coming," he said.

"It's almost as if the city has decided to fund the backs of their entire operation on the backs of businesses that are already struggling to make ends meet," he said. "Needless to say there's going to be a battle over this thing. We're not going to just roll over."

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

Linda Ely of Carson City, Nev., and her dog, Sage, stop for gas at the Central Point Pilot station Monday. Ely says gas station services are more important to her than paying a few cents more at the pump. - Bob Pennell