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The Oregonian

Utility backers dispute ballot language



Chief petitioners for forming a Multnomah County people's utility district say county commissioners approved a ballot title and explanation Thursday that is designed to seek the measure's defeat at a Nov. 4 special election.

Dan Meek, attorney for the Utility Reform Project, said the district supporters will challenge the title in Circuit Court on Monday unless a statement about a property tax increase that they allege is false is removed from the measure. Such a challenge must be filed within seven days after a title is filed with the county elections clerk.

Meek and chief petitioners for forming a district to acquire assets of Portland General Electric say the ballot explanation contains false information aimed at sinking the proposal.

The board of commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, approved a one-line ballot question that reads: "Shall Multnomah County people's utility district be formed with authority to impose a special one-year levy in 2004-05? This measure may cause property taxes to increase more than three percent."

Meek said that if the tax statement were true, the proposed levy could earn $1.27 billion instead of the estimated $127,000 for studies. He said adding a levy of $.003 to the current level of taxes would increase taxes by 0.0136 percent, not 3 percent. He said the estimate of an increase of 45 cents on a house with an assessed value of $150,000 is accurate.

County Attorney Agnes Sowle said lawyers in her office are willing to discuss interpretations of the PUD law with attorneys for interested parties.

Proponents did not even want to ask for a levy, said Meek, but Oregon law requires it.

Petitioners said the ballot should have two questions, one to ask for formation of the district and one seeking a one-time -- not a one-year -- levy to pay for engineering and financial studies if the district is formed.

District formation requires a majority vote, but a levy also requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters in the county turn out for the vote. So it would be possible for voters to approve district formation but not a levy. With one question, some voters who may not want to approve a levy might oppose forming the district as well.

Four of the commissioners have criticized the PUD proposal, and some have urged residents to vote no. Commissioner Serena Cruz, who presided over the state-required hearings on setting boundaries and an election date for the proposed formation, said she took no position on the PUD. Commissioners Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey oppose referring the issue to voters.

Bill Michtom, one of the chief petitioners, said he was outraged about the ballot language. The county had taken a simple issue, he said, manipulated it, and added a mistake.

County Chairwoman Diane Linn said that any accusation that the county is deliberately trying to kill the proposal "is a false and unsubstantiated claim." She said that the board tried to comply with the law. "I have complete confidence that our attorneys were unbiased in their approach," she said, and that lawyers could respectfully disagree about what to do.

Sowle said the one-line question is a "best guess" to follow Oregon's PUD law.

Janet Christ: 503-294-5032; janetchrist@news.oregonian.com