Portland's Arts Tax and Communities of Color: Talk To Us, To America’s Stubbornest Dreamers
If non-payment goes into late-fees, we'll be imposing a world of hurt on specific classes of Portlanders
Ronault LS Catalani
March 14, 2013It’s not too late. It’s a good month before that dreaded filing deadline.
Sure, I’m thinking aloud about April's scary federal tax-due deadline, likewise I'm stressing about Oregon's always painful tax pay-up deadline – but what’s really worrying everyone around our raucous family’s Sunday kitchen table is our City's new Arts Tax. The tax enough Portlanders voted to impose on all of us, just last November.
I’m bothered, and hoping enough of our salsa-dancing, yoga-sitting, Thai-dining, Tibetan-accoutrement-shopping neighbors are also bugged by how blatantly this new tax violates sensibilities shared by many Portlanders. Sensibilities on good governance and on fundamental fairness.
Here's what I mean: I'm a fashionably-casual, amply-educated, and over-fed downtown guy. Folks like me will be reminded to pay the tax bill by the Oregonian while standing in Starbucks’ long morning coffee line. Likewise, OPB will politely poke those of us inching out of downtown on our evening I-84 commute. Mainstream media notice is adequate by my demographic. I will comply.
But aduh’illaah (same meaning as Dios mio or OMG) if you're not squarely inside this tidy demographic you may not get this message. If instead, you're a household of ethnic minority Portlanders. Half of the energetic kids packing our public school halls between classes go home to these families.
I worry about immigrant moms and dads, the ones daily clocking into work early, the ones always leaving late. Those earnest Spanish- and Russian- and Chinese- and Hindi- and Viet-speaking shoppers (to name five of Portland’s 80 or so minority language-speakers) strolling our weekend malls. Those parents determined to dress well their bright girls and boys, to show proper respect our school’s super teachers. One-in-five of our neighbors are foreign-born.
Since Oregon’s 1980s internationalist governors, Portland has been an American gateway city. We are, as Mayor Sam Adams was fond of saying over these last several years, a "scrappy, competitive West Coast port city.”
Settle any Saturday on a beached log at Kelley Point Park, and you can welcome low-riding freighters full of Shanghai big-screens and Pusan subcompacts easing in; you can wave goodbye to boatloads of Beaverton microchips and Woodburn grass seed, steaming out. Every month about 100 refugees from our world’s ugliest regimes, arrive at PDX. For uninterrupted millennia, this confluence of rain and rivers and ocean has been home to a vigorous commerce of people, products, and ideas. It's the port-part of Portland.
The problem is not our city attracting Mother Mexico's most optimistic children, or Mother India's best engineers, or island Tonga's stubbornest masons. The problem is local governance not talking to us. To us new to democracy. To American dreamers. To our next majority.
The problem is not public-funding for local arts. Ethnic minority Portlanders love our artists.
Most will feel fine so long as our dollars are equitably spent on downtown sculptors, on North Portland muralists and gospel singers, on far-Eastside’s dragon drummers and traditional dancers.
The problem is sending public notice of our new $35 per adult tax through media speaking to mainstream Portlanders. The problem is those mailed tax-due cards directing residents to the arts tax website. No big deal for me, for my i-Phone or i-Pad, but a big barrier for our not-so-tech hip families.
Hard-working Haitian or Somali or Samoan Portlanders not navigating our City's tax website will not have notice that living below the federal poverty-line makes you eligible for tax exemption. For those of us with internet access, there's a quick click for a US Department of Health and Human Services table to determine if you're poor enough. For those of us with law degrees, with CPA certificates, or very high thresholds for pain, there’s a click for Portland's Revenue Bureau’s administrative rules. Rules that require residents to prove their poverty. And to do it before deadline. Or else.
Bottom line: Non-compliance for non-mainstreamers is as foreseeable as April rain. If non-payment goes into late-fees, into the hands of collection agencies, into the lawlessness of credit bureaus, we'll be imposing a world of hurt on specific classes of Portlanders. All that, in hopes of capturing $13 million for local arts.
But like I was saying when we started this essay: it's not too late. It's a good month before deadline. We have plenty of morning coffee lines or evening commute lines time to re-think this convergence of our highest civic aspirations and our actual practice of good governance.
We'll expect the best of our city's leaders. Here, at the confluence of our two generous river matriarchs. Alluvial soil as rich as chocolate. Expectations as that grand clockwise sweep of Pacific sea circulating our peoples, products, and ideas round and round our Pacific community.
We'll work and work democracy, until we do it right.
Sure we will.