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Tax payers remain unhappy with road plan

Citizens who spoke at the final road district hearing Monday, Aug. 11, echoed the words of many of their fellow property owners. This time, however, several also gave suggestions on how the road department could improve its current ask.

“We pay over $70,000 in property taxes per year,” Jean Lavelle of Martin Underhill Farms said. “And once a tax is put in place, I don’t believe it will ever go away or be reduced. As property values go up, the tax rate might not increase, but the amount of money you pay will continue to grow well into the next generation. A lot of the people who use the roads for recreation won’t pay anything for the impact they cause under the current plan, and I think those issues should be explored more. I don’t think it’s right to target the group who’s been here the longest or rely on the most dependable folks in the county to bear the majority of the tax burden. I don’t think this proposal is ready to go to the ballot.”

Robert Wallace, also of Dufur, said the commission should use citizens’ feedback to inform the needed changes before putting it to a vote.

“I think everybody appreciates the Road Advisory Committee and the road department for all their hard work,” he said, “but the city opting out was a deal-killer. Now you need to take the lessons you’ve learned and go back to the city to see if something else can be worked out. It might be better to do a phase-in or a 2-year tax levy for a period of time before you bring it back to the voters.”

While the majority of those present agreed maintaining the road system to its current standards is important, most agreed the proposal as it stands is not yet ready to go to ballot.

Commissioners need to have a written statement to the Secretary of State’s office by Aug. 15 if they want to put the district proposal in the November 2014 voter’s pamphlet. The commissioners were scheduled to meet again after press deadlines Tuesday and hope to make their decision mid-week.

The final hearing followed an Aug. 7 meeting between the Road Advisory Committee and county commissioners to discuss the future of the road system.

“We, as a commission, have been very supportive of the process, so when the city dropped out 19 months later, it pulled the rug out from underneath the whole thing,” Commissioner Rod Runyon said. “Rural people who live outside the city feel like they’re being asked to foot the bill for all the city people using the roads, and there’s got to be a more equitable way to do this, whether it’s slowly phasing in a different rate or something else.”

Another option, he said, would be to charge a higher vehicle registration fee. While he said the solution wouldn’t come close to solving the department’s funding issue, it would at least generate some new revenue.

Chuck Covert, chair of the Advisory Committee, said he was bothered by the public’s comments about the road department needing to “live within its means.”

“They’ve been operating on half the budget they had seven years ago,” he said, addressing the commissioners. “So as long as you can get them back to where they were in 2007 after they made all the cuts, then at least they’ll be able to maintain. Right now, they’re going backwards. If you come up with a business plan, you have to make it a business plan that allows them to be successful and to maintain what they have.”

The reality, he said, was that in an effort to keep costs down, the road department has already cut back in many areas.

“For the people that say they can’t remember the last time they had gravel put on their roads, yeah, no kidding,” he said. “That’s because we don’t have the money.”

“I can understand people who live where there isn’t a paved road within 20 miles of their houses saying that,” Ken Polehn, a member of the Road Advisory Committee, said. “However, if there was ever a gully wash out there, [the road department] would be the ones to fix it. No landowner is going to vote for a tax unless they’re educated on what happens when we don’t take care of them.”

One of the questions most frequently asked at the last three public hearings was why the committee hadn’t considered distributing the costs more evenly between potential funding sources.

Marty Matherly, Public Works director and Commissioner Scott Hege agreed it would be difficult to “piecemeal” a variety of potential funding solutions together in order to reach their total funding goal of $1.6-1.7 million.

“You can’t just pass one whole package of things altogether,” Hege said. “You’d have to list each of them separately on the ballot, and then hope the stars align and all three or four of them pass.”

The trouble is, he continued, many still wanted to see a combined solution brought to the table.

“I could see us moving forward with the district with another, significantly lower rate,” he said. “I know the committee wanted a solution that would solve the whole funding problem, but I’d rather see the department get a whole chunk of change for the roads than nothing at all.”

Runyon brought up the possibility of the Library District lowering its current tax rate for several years to open up more funding opportunities for the road department.

“We’re definitely not sitting still and everyone’s working hard to try and figure this out,” he said. “I hate this ‘north versus south’ attitude. All three of us spend a lot of time all over [the county], but that’s something we’ve been getting a lot of lately.”

County Administrative Officer Tyler Stone said his goal for next year would be to get the road department on more stable financial ground.

“In the next 12-month period, my approach will be to get us to a place where revenue and funding balances out. What that means is looking at all outside payments that are currently being made and looking to reduce or eliminate those, which would mean service cuts in the county,” he said. “I’m not trying to sugar coat it. If something doesn’t pass in the public sector, we’re obliged to do something about it.”

At the same time, he said, the department will need to be on the lookout for future revenue sources and to potentially work on making opportunities for partnerships that could help reduce costs.

“We know the scope of the problem,” Hege said. “It may not happen next year, but right now it sounds like we’re going to have to figure out how we can do with a little bit less in the county. That’s difficult, and it definitely comes with a lot of resistance, but it sounds like that’s what we’ll have to do in the meantime.”

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