What happens when public roads are neglected and regular maintenance standards allowed to lapse?
The answer, according to Wasco County Public Works Director Marty Matherly, is you simply don’t want to find out.
Toward the goal of avoiding that outcome, the county’s Road Advisory Committee proposes establishing a taxing district and property tax levy to “replace declining timber receipts” and the “temporary federal replacement funding” which had previously allowed them to “barely” maintain standards of service. They made the proposal at the Dec. 15 Wasco County Board of Commissioners meeting. The replacement funding that accounted for about half of the county’s road budget, had continually decreased since 2006.
In response, the road department offset the declining revenue by reducing material and capital expenditures, making cuts to personnel and ceasing to set aside additional funding for the emergency road reserve.
In 2013, County officials hadn’t expected to have access to any such “safety net” funding, until an addition to a bill to maintain a federal helium reserve restored a portion of their revenue by about $600,000, still leaving the county road budget short about $1 million.
According to the committee’s recommendation, in light of this most recent loss, “Wasco County road funding is now insufficient to sustain the level of maintenance and repair that avoids consequent major expenditures for rebuilding and replacement.”
In addition, the recommendation states that the committee believes “any delay in bringing this message to citizens of the county will result in an unacceptable decline in the quality of our roads, [as well as] much higher costs of repair and replacement.”
“It is significantly more expensive to rebuild roads that have been allowed to decline in condition than it is to maintain good ones,” Matherly said. “And according to our reports, only the formation of a county road district will be able to supply the money we need to keep them in adequate working order.”
The committee’s recommendation to the Wasco County Board of Commissioners calls for a measure to be put to voters that would result in the formation of a proposed new road district and property tax levy “sufficient to raise $1.6 million for Wasco County roads, and approximately $750,000 for roads within the City of The Dalles.”
The $1.6 million figure, Matherly said, would cover the cost of keeping the roads in “good” condition, and would give the road department the means to repair about 35-40 miles per year as opposed to the now customary 17 since 2007 budget cuts.
“Such a measure,” the committee understands, “would require an approximate rate of $1.23 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.”
Matherly said this number was reached by a standard process of calculation that involves dividing the total monies to be levied by the total taxable amount of the district.
Although the committee originally hoped their recommendation would be able to make it to ballot by November 2014, they have since adjusted their expectations to May 2015. That change is due to the complexity of the public process involved in the formation of a new road district.
According to Wasco County Clerk Linda Brown, the process can take up to two years to complete.
“It’s a lengthy process that at every step of the way requires a reassessment of public approval in order to move forward,” she said.
“It’s a citizen’s initiative, and it takes an average of about 18 months to get through the entire citizen’s process.”
“Election deadlines,” Brown said, “are pretty hard, fast, and immoveable,” and in order for the committee to get the proposed district onto the November 2014 ballot, “they would have needed to have everything done within the next couple of months and, at this point, that just isn’t going to happen.”
Brown said that while the County Commission technically has the power to form a new district on its own, the move would require a huge citizen’s approval rating, such as that which occurred in the case of the Tygh Valley Fire District with about 80 to 90 percent of its population agreeing that it was in the best interests of the community to establish.
“In this kind of process,” Brown said, “you have to put the matter to a vote of people to make sure it’s what the citizens really want.”
Tyler Stone, administrative officer of county staff, said that approving the committee’s recommendation will be the next step in the process.
“Everything will start as soon as the commission decides that it’s something they want to investigate and, when they do, the process will take just as long as it takes — there’s no changing that.”
In the event that the road committee’s proposal for the new district and property tax levy fails to pass, the committee recommended that the Board of Commissioners “put before the voters of the county a vehicle registration fee measure that would, if approved, increase the present fee by $43 and raise approximately $730,000 for Wasco County Roads and $435,000 for roads within the City of The Dalles.”
While this alternative measure would fall short of the committee’s original funding goal, it would at least get them a significant step closer to acquiring the revenue they need to continue meeting the demands placed on the roads each year.
“We’re trying to get this done in a way that puts us back where we need to be,” Matherly said, “and that’s at a level which will allow us to maintain the existing road system with the people we need to do it right.”
When asked what the committee intends to do next, he said, “We have no plans to change the current level of service we provide.
Right now, we’re working on developing a timeline for the process to move forward in a way that will aid others in making good decisions that fit the needs of the community.”
Members of the road committee will meet with both The Dalles City Council and the county commission again in early January to determine the best way to move forward in the coming months.