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Road plan: Back to the drawing board

County Commissioners voted against bringing the proposed road district to the 2014 ballot Tuesday, resolving to work toward generating a “more equitable solution” by pursuing a wider variety of funding options to help fill the road department’s funding shortfall.

“There are just too many questions about the numbers at this date and it places an unfair burden on the rural landowners — those are the two big things sticking out in my mind,” Commissioner Rod Runyon said before making the motion to scrap current plans for the district. “When one group’s paying for it, I can’t go forward with it. People have asked us over and over why we haven’t looked into using various funding scenarios to help fix the problem. We haven’t really examined that and it’s something that needs to be examined.”

While Commissioner Scott Hege also ruled in favor of the motion, Commissioner Steve Kramer said he was against postponing the district’s progress to the ballot.

“I disagree with Commissioner Runyon,” he said. “Our funds are going to run out and I don’t think we can afford to wait and have our road system continue to decline. It’s essential to our public safety, to emergency services and to our farm-to-market system. Although this is a very, very tough decision, I think it’s one we need to get to voters as soon as possible.”

Hege said he stood somewhere in between his fellow commissioners.

“The Road Advisory Committee did a lot of work, and hardly anybody said the roads were not important or that we didn’t need to find a solution,” he said. “Most have said they didn’t want to take on the full burden of the tax, but kind of inferred they might be willing to accept something substantially less than $2.03 in the future. Perhaps later we’ll go for part of the funds through a road district, but not all of it.”

The director of the county’s Assessment and Tax department, Tom Linhares, produced a sheet of potential alternative tax rate numbers to inform the morning’s discussion.

“The road department’s numbers were generated accurately based on the information they were given, but now we have new numbers that have undergone further analysis,” Linhares said.

What Linhares had been assigned to do, he said, was to establish the rate to be received by the dollar amounts for the current year of property taxes.

At a typical collection rate, if the county levied $1.28 per thousand of tax-assessed property value, they could collect around $1.2 million, versus about $1.9 million with a rate of $2.05 or about $954,098 from collecting $1.02 per thousand.

“However, it’s important to keep in mind that you are never going to receive the entire estimated amount even in the best of situations,” he said. “The reality is the numbers will be in flux until the rate is put into effect. Until then, you won’t have exact numbers.”

Tyler Stone, Administrative Officer for Wasco County, said he is currently exploring the ways in which the county might further offset the costs internally.

“I’ve been thinking about how we can tap some other sources of money to help with the road department’s funding issue and maybe ease the burden on the taxpayer out there a little,” he told commissioners. “I’ve been looking at different expenses and potential revenue with a mix of different funds in our budget. There’ll be consequences to every single one of these potential actions, of course, and those are never easy decisions to make.”

Difficult cuts would have to be made for the county to raise the kind of funding commissioners seek for the road department, he said. But even with new cuts, it would be next to impossible for the county to come up with the road department’s total request without creating an enormous impact on the county.

“The $1.6 million is the target funding goal that will help stop the decline of our road system and keep them in the condition they are in today,” Stone said. “In the meantime while we try and work out a solution, our roads will continue to decline and the costs to repair them will continue to increase. It’s a lose-lose situation the longer we wait to fix it, but the county is committed to thoroughly investigating the new options on both the expense and revenue side of the budget to help our commissioners get to a number that is more palatable to voters.”

The commission resolved to look toward next spring to put a new proposal on the table. In the meantime, the county will continue to investigate how it might internally help lessen the burden placed on property owners.

“Other revenues that will be coming into the county in the next five or six years might help offset some of this as well,” Hege said, citing Google’s future enterprise zone payments to the county. “My hope is to find something that more evenly distributes the need in a variety of places, not just on property tax. While it’s easier to take a road district at one rate and get all the money, that’s not what the people want. What I want to know is what’s a number that is reasonable that we can put out there.”

Commissioner Runyon said the discussion on how best to aid the road department in their quest for more funding would continue well into the future.

“We are not done and we will be coming up with some other ideas,” he said. “I just don’t think we’re there right now. Things were changing even this morning and, for me, aiming it at one group is not what we were about when we started this process. That’s not the road committee’s fault, and now we have to come up with a better solution that’s more equitable for all.”

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