As Wasco County looks for solutions to its road budget problem it is becoming increasingly clear that the loss of federal timber receipts is going to mean a decrease in road quality unless the county can find another revenue source. “We have been looking for that goose with the golden egg, but we haven’t been able to find it yet,” said Chuck Covert, chairman of the Road Advisory Committee.
The committee was formed in January to find ways to compensate for the loss of the remaining federal timber receipts, which have historically been used to fund a majority of the road department’s budget. The payments used to total about $2 million per year but have dwindled to $700,000 and aren’t expected to be renewed again.
Several committee members spoke at an April 4 Board of County Commissioners meeting and told commissioners that the problem was more difficult to solve than they first thought. John Fulton said many of the cuts he came to the committee prepared to suggest had already happened during earlier federal payment reductions.
Keith Mobley said right now citizens enjoy good quality roads in Wasco County but “that time is ending because of the size of this funding gap.”
“Marty and his crew have done a great job but this isn’t a condition we can hope to enjoy much longer,” he said. “We need to do something to address this shortfall that threatens the quality of our roads.”
Covert said if maintenance of a road is put off for too long, there is a point that the work needed to bring the road back up to par suddenly becomes many times as expensive because small fixes won’t address the problem anymore. It’s a factor he said the county needs to take into account when deciding how long to defer maintenance projects.
He said the advisory committee, which has had seven meetings so far, has come up with four goals: Build public awareness of the scope of the shortfall, define acceptable minimum service levels based on public input, develop a plan for the next budget cycle and explore new revenue sources for future years.
Covert said it is important to get public input on which roads would be the least problematic if they reverted to gravel roads or had other maintenance cutbacks. The county also needs input on whether citizens would be willing to pay (through something like a road district, bond measure or gas tax) to keep roads from deteriorating.
In the course of his work on the Main Street program in The Dalles, Covert said he learned that it is vital to get public input early in the process because often entities think they know what the public wants and then have to go back to the drawing board when they hold their first public meeting and meet with strong opposition.
“If we don’t get public input and they’re not aware then we’re wasting our time,” he said.
As a result, the committee had been working on a presentation laying out the most relevant information and will be taking it to various meetings along with other public education efforts. The committee plans to start gathering input from the public, especially stakeholders like orchardists, soon.
The committee members were hoping to find simple ways to save money, but Covert said the county already runs an efficient road department and engages in many cost-saving measures, such as sharing equipment and collaborating with the City of The Dalles.
County surveyor Dan Boldt, who is not on the roads advisory committee but attended the meeting, said when he began working at the county there were 53 people on the road crew. Now there are 21.
County commission chair Rod Runyon commented that Covert said the county was being asked to “do more with less” but really it is at the point where it can only hope to do the same with less. He said not only does the county have to plan for less money in the next budget cycle, but it was frustrating to hear that the Forest Service is asking for some of this year’s money back because of a miscalculation on the federal government’s part.
“It’s not like we’re looking for a surplus, we’re just trying to maintain what we have,” Runyon said.
Commissioner Steve Kramer said he has been attending the advisory committee meetings and has learned a lot from them, and the road crew is doing a “great” job with what it is given.
Commissioner Scott Hege thanked the committee members for volunteering for the time-consuming work sessions.
“This is probably one of the most important issues in the county right now and we are really relying on your thoughts and ideas,” he said.