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Hearing testimony leans against road special district

Wasco County Commissioners heard from dozens of concerned citizens at the second roads hearing Aug. 6, with the majority of speakers declaring they were “not in favor” of the new taxing district.

“It throws all the burden on people in the rural community,” Jack Archer, landowner and Pine Hollow resident, told the commission. “I would like to commend the committee that tried to put this together, but I believe they fell short of an equitable solution. You’ve got to do something different than burden people who have worked hard all their lives with an enormous tax rate.”

Chuck Covert, chair of the road advisory committee, said the committee had tried “to come up with something that would be sustainable and reverse the road department’s funding problem immediately,” rather than wait too long and risk further deterioration of the road system.

Dan Ross of Maupin said his concern was how the money generated by the tax would be spent.

“Our roads down there in south Wasco County look like the before picture in almost every place you can think of,” he said. “We have some of the worst looking roads, and the farmers’ who’ve said their taxes are going to double, well we have a lot of people who are in the same category down there. You’re basically asking to raise expectations on the people that don’t look to benefit from those dollars.”

Sevenmile Hill resident Georgia Murray said she believed the city of The Dalles “had not acted honorably” or in the best interests of the county when they elected to opt out of the district.

“You said the city and county are two different animals, and I think you’re right — it’s one elephant and one ant,” she said. “Making governments smaller should be the goal of this commission, and I encourage the county to talk to the city about the library’s budget and ask why they’re able to put away so much in reserves while others are barely getting by. Do not let the elephant step on the ant again.”

Many citizens voiced the need for a more varied solution to the road department’s funding problem. However, Covert said this would require a very complex process that might not actually yield the results the committee was looking for.

“What we’re trying to do is address the shortfall and get us back to where we need to be to even maintain the roads and keep them at the level they are now without allowing them to deteriorate completely,” he said. “And if we were to try to piece a bunch of smaller things together to do that, we’d likely have to create a whole new bureaucracy to collect those fees. We’ve done the research, and the road district seems to be the easiest and most sustainable solution to the problem.”

Former county commissioner Dan Erickson said it was the commission’s responsibility to put the road district on the ballot.

“The county commissioners have the responsibility to maintain the assets of the county, and the road system is by far the most valuable asset the county owns,” he said. “The formation of a road district is a responsible and reasonable solution, and would provide long-term, secure funding. The road committee deserves to have the opportunity to have their case presented to the community, and the voters have a right to make their own decision about whether to approve it.”

Commission Chair Scott Hege said the hearings were organized so the commissioners could hear the public’s opinions.

“The decision we’re making here is not whether we’re going to be imposing a new taxing district, we don’t have the ability or the authority to impose taxes on the public,” he said. “What we can do is put it on the ballot so the public has an opportunity to vote on it.”

Commissioner Rod Runyon said the city’s decision to opt out significantly impacted any chance the district had of passing.

“It’s discouraging that the city chose to opt out, but I understand why. I agree that the $2.03 is unreasonable. It just changed the tenor of the entire project,” he said. “However, I think we’re doing a good job of gathering viewpoints and educating the public. We’ve got to respect the people who have done the research and who’ve said this is our best option.”

The hearing was convened after over a year of research conducted by the Road Advisory Committee to address the department’s funding shortfall of about $1.5 million.

After the elimination of federal “safety net” funding in 2007, the road department’s compensating federal contribution shrunk from $1.7 million to $135,000. With no future funding in sight to make up the difference, the department seeks to place a permanent tax rate of $2.03 per thousand of tax-assessed property value.

After the city of The Dalles chose to opt out of the district, the rate swelled from $1.23 to $2.03, and of the hearing’s about 50 attendees, the majority said the new rate was unacceptable for a variety of reasons.

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