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Residents: roads are a county priority

DECLINE OF federal “safety net” funding for county roads is shown in blue on the graph above, while motor vehicle fund revenue is red and cost of personal services is green.

DECLINE OF federal “safety net” funding for county roads is shown in blue on the graph above, while motor vehicle fund revenue is red and cost of personal services is green. Wasco County Chart

Wasco County residents talked about the need to maintain good roads throughout the county when asked to testify at a public hearing on how to fund road maintenance in the absence of federal payments to counties in lieu of timber receipts.

Dave Dixon of Antelope traveled the longest distance to talk, noting that “the south end of the county is on the longest leash” and asking how the county would assure good roads in that area. Dixon noted that he lives on the “last paved road farthest from The Dalles” in Wasco County.

Members of the Wasco County Board of Commissioners, which called the hearing and several earlier hearings around the county, didn’t actually answer Dixon’s question, but chairman Rod Runyon discussed how to get information out to that sparsely populated area of the county before Dixon left for his two-and-a-half-hour drive home.

Before the hearing, the about 20 residents in attendance heard a presentation about the challenge involved in road maintenance, in particular the loss of, first, timber receipts from harvest in national forests — constrained by habitat protection of endangered species — and, second, the gradual decline of federal “safety net” funding designed to fill the hole left by the loss of timber receipts.

The funds account for about half of the county’s road budget with the other half coming from registration, license and gas tax fees among other sources.

Between 2000 when the “safety net” funding started and 2006, Wasco County received on average $3.75 million. Since 2007, the funds have been gradually declining. As a result, the road department developed a plan to offset declining revenue: reductions in materials and capital expenditures, no additional funding to the emergency road reserve, and reductions in personnel, explained Keith Mobley during a Power Point presentation.

County officials hadn’t expected to see any “safety net” revenue this year, until an addition to a bill to maintain a federal helium reserve restored a portion of that funding, about $600,000. That still leaves the county road budget short about $1 million this year.

The information presented at the hearing was gathered by the Wasco County Road Advisory Committee. The committee was charged with gathering comments about roads from throughout the county and creating a plan for ongoing road maintenance financing. Members have been meeting with county civic groups, fire boards, school boards and others to present the information and gather comments.

The committee also gave out surveys, receiving more than 100 back. Among their findings:

• 51 percent rated the maintenance of gravel roads as very important with 53 percent saying they would not support eliminating or reducing gravel road maintenance,

• 72 percent rated maintenance of paved roads as very important with 68 percent opposing the elimination or reduction of paved road maintenance,

• 58 percent said they would strongly support new road revenue, 51 percent supporting some kind of new fee or tax.

The committee proposed three possible options for improving road department funding: a vehicle registration fee, a transportation impact fee, and a county road district. The panel rejected the idea of either privatizing the road department or combining The Dalles city and county road departments.

Their report said savings from privatization were “vastly overstated” because of cost overruns and hidden and indirect costs such as contract monitoring and administration, make privatization more expensive than in-house services.

On combining departments, the panel noted that the county public works department problems were “not created through overspending or overstaffing” and consolidation would severely impact both, creating the challenge of trying to manage and prioritize for two specialized transportation systems.

Testimony from the handful of residents who spoke at the hearing echoed the priorities expressed in the report.

The committee identified a funding goal of $1.6 million that would take care of maintenance needed to maintain roads in “good” condition — repairing about 35-40 miles per year as opposed to the 17 per year since 2007 budget cuts. That decline has resulted in an overall decline in the average road condition in Wasco County, Mobley noted.

An additional $300,000 a year would allow the county to continue to fund its emergency reserve, which is drawn on to deal with road repairs following disasters such as the 1996 flood.

Only a county road district offered the potential to fill the entire gap in road funding, said Marty Matherly, county public works director.

“We need to do one thing, not try to combine two or three things,” said Dan Ericksen, former Wasco County Judge. “Then people really feel [burdened]. The most difficult is the road district, but it’s probably the best solution.”

But Runyon questioned what would happen with a taxing district if federal payments were restored, or — the best case scenario from the commission’s perspective — timber harvests were restored to beneficial levels. And all the funding mechanisms will require a vote of the public.

“But probably the only way you’ll get a district passed is when you reach a reaction point when the roads are getting bad,” Ericksen said.

The problem with that scenario is that when the road conditions significantly decline the cost to rebuild rather than maintain roads is also much higher.

Audience members discussed a variety of scenarios for raising more revenue, including increasing fees for trucks going to the landfill, adding a gas tax.

“The dump is the second-largest revenue producer for the county already,” Runyon said, but none of that revenue goes to roads.

Dennis James of Pleasant Ridge suggested a statewide solution may need to be considered, considering county payments affect 33 or Oregon’s 36 counties. He tossed out a variety of ideas he said he had been discussing with Rep. John Huffman (R-The Dalles), including a surcharge of recreational fees.

No one at the meeting suggested that more revenue wasn’t needed to fill the “safety net” gap and all the attendees who spoke stressed the importance of good roads.

“I think the roads are essential,” said Rosemary Ross of The Dalles. “School buses in the winter go all over the county. It’s essential for the safety of our children, let alone all kinds of commerce.”

Commissioner Scott Hege noted that other revenue sources are on the horizon, including payments from the Google development under way now. In addition, the first Google development is more than halfway through its 15-year enterprise zone and will be paying taxes on full value in seven years.

“That’s a big chunk of the value of the county and when that comes online we’ll see significant revenue,” Hege said.

In addition, the county will be using some of its Google revenues to pay off its $85,000 obligation for Gorge Discovery Center infrastructure.

Commissioners invited anyone with comments on the road plan to contact them. Their contact information and a copy of the Road Advisory Committee report are available online at www.co.wasco.or.us.

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