Here in Portland, we have state government, county government, and city government, just like everywhere else. But then we also have "Metro," short for the "Metropolitan Service District." It's another layer of government, a regional one. There doesn't seem to be anything like it anywhere else, and if it were such a great idea, other places have had more than 40 years to copy it.
The main thing Metro was set up to do, and for my money its only legitimate activity, is to provide regional land use planning. This has slowed down, but not prevented, the paving over of rural areas around Portland. Notice how I said: not prevented. The law actually requires Metro to let the developer and construction weasels plow under a certain amount of farms every decade, but only a certain amount. Nowadays the battleground areas are something like an hour's drive from downtown.
But over the years, Metro's mission has crept into all sorts of other ventures. When Portland didn't want its zoo any more, Metro took it over. Then in the name of "managing open space," Metro inexplicably took over the public cemeteries in the region. And in an economically disastrous move, Metro built a failed Convention Center, then doubled it in size to no avail, and now it's building a giant empty hotel across the street. If the hotel's a hit, some hotel corporation will make a mint; if it's a flop, the taxpayers will foot the bill. I'll bet the under on that one, and I would have even before the plague. By the time (if ever) Portland becomes a prime convention spot, that hotel will be old and tacky.
Metro also runs the Expo Center, for lack of anybody else wanting to do the job. And somehow it's involved in garbage, too, although City Hall is also in on that action.
Then there's "affordable housing," which used to be called "the Projects." Metro also has its fingers in that nowadays. It has borrowed something like $650 million for that mission.
The main "service" provided by Metro seems to be taking huge gobs of tax moolah and handing them out to the politically powerful. It's not really supervised by anybody. The average person couldn't tell you what it is or what it does. There's a board, elected by zones, and nobody could give you the name of a single person on it. When the voter's pamphlet comes, the candidates for these positions are B Leaguers who are either lieutenants for the construction powers-that-be or perennial political wannabes like Chris "Streetcar" Smith.
There's a lot of money sloshing around in Metro. It takes in more than $350 million a year, and it has a payroll of about $120 million. About half of Metro's money comes from a wicked regional property tax, and another 12 percent or so comes from excise taxes, including a tax on the issuance of construction permits.
I get a strong uneasy feeling when I look at all the huge pots of public money sitting out there for the taking in Portland. The Port of Portland, Tri-Met, OHSU, the "education service districts," Metro – who knows what's going on in the shade every day in those places? And so it was to my horror that I saw a couple of months ago that Metro is now going to become Portland's go-to agency to serve the homeless. The voters, who never saw a tax they didn't like, approved a Metro income tax on upper-income people and a Metro business profit tax, both to be poured into the ocean of homelessness.
Okay, horrible. But today a new horror! Now Metro has declared itself the regional transportation planning agency, and for that they need a new payroll tax! About $6.50 a year per $1,000 of payroll for new transportation "projects." And $56 more added onto the fee to register a car, because as we all know, operating a car is just plain immoral.
We already have a payroll tax (backed up by a self-employment income tax) of about $7 per $1,000 in the Portland area. It's imposed by Tri-Met, the region's mass transit agency. But now we're learning that we need to double that tax, essentially, and build a second transportation bureaucracy. It's crazy. The last time I looked, Metro could abolish and take over Tri-Met. Maybe that's what's going to happen as Tri-Met goes bankrupt.
We are moving far in the wrong direction with Metro. Except for land use planning, it's not needed. The zoo should be privatized, or better yet, closed. The state and counties can do transportation planning just fine. Tri-Met's in charge of public transportation. Give up on the worthless Convention Center. Since the Covid emergency started, I hear it has been used as a homeless shelter. It ought to stay that way.
The cemeteries should have their own small agency and tax base. Let the cities and counties take care of all things, not just some things, relating to garbage. (This will also have the benefit of giving the Mafia guys more efficient, one-stop shopping opportunities.) Sell the Expo Center.
Metro is an open invitation to waste and corruption. The last thing we should be doing is giving it more power and more money to burn.