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The Oregonian

PUD vote turnout may fall short

A ballot measure to finance engineering studies for a public utility district requires a 50 percent turnout to pass



Voter turnout for a proposal to create a people's utility district in Multnomah County is likely to fall below 50 percent, elections officials said Monday, despite a strong showing so far for a special election.

Turnout below half in today's election would kill Measure 26-52, a one-time, $127,000 property tax increase designed to support a new PUD's acquisition of Portland General Electric property. That measure, which would fund an engineering study, needs both voter approval and a 50 percent turnout of registered voters to pass.

But a PUD could still be formed anyway -- without the new tax -- if voters approve another initiative on the ballot, Measure 26-51.

The new PUD board, also up for election, would then have to hold another election to raise property taxes, or hope that an engineering company offers to do the work on loan with an eye toward gaining future PUD business.

PUD supporters said Monday that the initiative could pull out a win and perhaps reach 50 percent turnout, saying record campaign spending by measure opponents is a signal of desperation that will help drive more voters to the polls. PUD opponents said they're confident both measures will lose outright, making voter turnout moot.

John Kauffman, Multnomah County's elections director, estimated Monday that 36 percent of the 346,374 voters authorized to vote in the PUD election had mailed in or dropped off their ballots.

Based on average returns on the last days of recent elections, he projected that turnout for today's election would hit 45 percent, much higher than other recent special elections but still below the turnout needed for a property tax increase. PUD opponents said they expect turnout to run from 40 percent to 45 percent.

"It's obviously possible (to hit 50 percent)," Kauffman said. "But it's pretty unlikely."

Kauffman predicted that 14 percent of eligible voters would have to drop off ballots today to reach 50 percent turnout.

About that many voters turned out on the last day of a higher profile election in May to create a Multnomah County income tax, which drew 56 percent turnout overall. In January's statewide income tax election, 10.5 percent of Multnomah County's voters turned out the last day, driving county turnout to 65 percent.

But other recent special elections have drawn about 30 percent of voters and far fewer last-day returns.

Ballots have to be in election officials' hands or at designated drop-off spots by 8 p.m. today to be counted. Ballots mailed today will not reach the elections office in time to be counted, elections officials warned. Postmarks do not count.

PUD supporters emphasize local control, relatively low rates at the six electric PUDs in Oregon, and PGE's ownership by bankrupt Enron. Opponents cast the plan as a risky government takeover and highlight the property tax increase.

Measure 26-52 would authorize a one-time property tax increase of 0.3 cents per $1,000 of assessed value -- about 45 cents for a home assessed at $150,000 -- to study utility acquisition.

The opposition campaign, funded primarily by PGE and PacifiCorp, has raised nearly $1.9 million in cash and in-kind donations, a record for a Multnomah County initiative. The pro-PUD campaign reported raising less than $30,000 as of last week.

PUD supporters held signs on the Hawthorne and Burnside bridges Monday, and planned to continue phoning voters today who haven't submitted ballots. The opposition campaign planned to run its last advertisements Monday night.

PUD backers are crossing their fingers and planning an election night party. "We have no idea how it's going; we can't afford polls," said Joan Horton, a campaign volunteer and one of the chief petitioners for the measures. "But we're getting a lot of positive feedback when we talk with voters."

The utility district's opponents are "very hopeful of defeating both measures," said Brian Gard, chairman of Citizens Against the Government Takeover and president of Gard & Gerber, a Portland advertising firm. But they aren't having a party tonight.

"We view this as something we want to get behind us," Gard said, "so we can get on to more important things."

Scott Learn: 503-294-7657; scottlearn@news.oregonian.com.