The Dalles City Council was asked by county officials Monday to put off a decision about asking voters to approve a 3-cent-per- gallon gas tax increase to fund repairs for dilapidated streets.
Wasco County Commissioner Steve Kramer, who was present at the June 24 meeting, said the alternative plan to form a county-wide road taxing district should be given more consideration. By working together, he said the budgetary needs of both government entities for infrastructure improvements could be taken care of. He said asking the electorate to approve one taxing issue instead of two provided a greater chance of success.
“We have a unique situation here and I see it as an opportunity to build our community so we can move forward and benefit our citizens with the resources we have,” said Kramer, who wanted more time to work out details for a proposal.
He and Mayor Steve Lawrence agreed that any measure emerging from the joint talks should not impair the chance for another agency to gain public funds. To date, the only proposal headed toward the ballot in November is the $5 million bond request for a new pool that is being floated by Northern Wasco County Parks and Recreation District.
The council agreed to continue the discussion of both the gas tax and road taxing district proposition on July 8. Lawrence said a public hearing will be held that Monday so citizens have the opportunity to comment and present other options for covering the cost of infrastructure improvements. The elected body convenes at 5:30 p.m. in the municipal chambers at City Hall, 313 Court Street.
The city is responsible for maintaining 88 miles of streets within town and is seeking funds to catch up on a backlog of repairs. Officials want to cover the cost of a revenue bond for $6.1 million with a term of 20 years for repairs and improvements of main arterials and 60 of the 315 blocks of streets within neighborhoods that also need repairs.
Dave Anderson, city public works director, estimates it will take seven years to finish the project list if the current 3-cent-per-gallon gas tax is raised to a total of 6 cents per gallon. He said it will yield about $450,000 more in revenue each year.
Money is also being sought by city officials to set up a preventative maintenance plan that would cut back on the number of major repairs that need to be done in the future.
The county’s revenue for maintenance and repair of 700 miles of roads has fallen from $3.75 million per year in 2006 to $2.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The reason for that drop in funding, said Chuck Covert, chair of the county’s Road Advisory Committee, is the loss of federal compensation for logging cutbacks in national forests.
With 50 percent of Oregon’s land base in federal ownership, he said Wasco and many other counties are facing hard economic times due to a decline in timber harvests tied to a series of environmental regulations. He said the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act that replaced some of those funds has lapsed and while U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden are working to restore it at some level, their efforts to date have not been successful.
Covert told the council that committee members had prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show civic groups in order to inform residents about the situation and ask for their suggestions. He said if the city put off a decision about the gas tax, which was on the table for discussion Monday, the data gleaned from citizens could be used to fine-tune a joint plan.
“What we are trying to do is go out and find out what the public feels should be done,” he said.
The joint proposal currently being considered is for $2 million per year, $1.25 million of which would go to the county and the remaining $750,000 to the city.
Councilor Tim McGlothlin expressed reservations about asking property owners to foot the full bill for road improvements that would also benefit tourists. He said the gas tax increase seemed more equitable because everyone who used city streets would be paying for their maintenance.
He said it is frustrating to have the federal government put local officials in the position to find other revenue sources. He said timber harvests could be managed to not only protect wildlife habitat but improve forest health while providing funds for rural communities that are struggling economically.
“We don’t want to raise rates, we don’t want to raise taxes, but we can’t keep putting things off so we are looking for solutions,” he said. “I do like the idea of us (city and county) collaborating and working in partnership.”
McGlothlin and other members of the council said they would look at any options brought forward by citizens to deal with the problem of funding infrastructure improvements.
The elected officials said past councils have put off road work expenditures for years to avoid asking taxpayers for more money. But the time has come to deal with the issue because 60 percent of the city’s streets are now in some state of disrepair.
Doug Hattenhauer, owner of a fuel distribution company based in The Dalles, told city officials that he would “fight tooth and nail” against any local gas tax proposal on the ballot. He said a statewide tax was the only equitable way to impose higher fees because cities that have a local tax are not then forced to compete with cities that don’t. He said The Dalles is the last stop along Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon where there is a city gas tax and having a 6-cent charge would send truckers on to Biggs Junction, where they could get fuel for less money.
He said the city has gained thousands per year from an increase in the statewide gas tax that went into effect in January 2011. Therefore, he said council members and staff are misrepresenting the situation when they say it was time to raise the local tax because it had been in place for 27 years without an increase.
“I think we’re in crisis management right now and we’re blaming the citizens, but it’s the council and staff that have underfunded this,” said Hattenhauer.
Jerry Johnson lives along a street that was annexed by the city but is given only minimal maintenance due to its classification as a public access road — a city road that doesn’t meet city development standards. He told the council Monday that if a road district is formed, or gas tax levied, he and others who would be paying more taxes need to be factored into the equation for maintenance. The city will not accept ownership of roads that were once within county jurisdiction unless they have curbs, sidewalks and storm water drains have been installed.
“It leaves a lot of us out there in no man’s land again,” said Johnson. “The county and city need to take care of our streets if they do this.”