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South County: Road proposal too costly

Residents of Maupin and greater south Wasco County told the Wasco County Board of Commissioners the cost of a proposed roads service district tax was too high and paying for it shouldn’t rest on rural and small-town shoulders alone.

Citizens gathered in the Maupin City Park community building July 16 for the first public hearing on the proposed county-wide roads district.

Citing significant increases in the cost of materials as a result of inflation and elimination of federal funding that paid for half for the county’s road budget, the estimate of the permanent property tax rate the road department intends to bring to the ballot in November is $2.03 per thousand dollars of assessed property valuation.

The rate, previously estimated at $1.23 per thousand, nearly doubled in size after the City of the Dalles and the City of Mosier decisions to opt out of the taxing district. Together, these decisions prompted the road department to increase the rate to continue to generate about $1.7 million in additional funding.

“The thing it really comes down to,” said Chuck Covert, chairman of the road advisory committee, in an opening statement, “is the road department doesn’t have the necessary funding to even maintain — not to do anything new, just maintain — the roads so that they’ll remain at the level they are now well into the future. We’ve gone from receiving $2 million in timber receipts down to $135,000, and even that number isn’t always guaranteed. There’s a huge gap, and the question is how do we address that deficiency and maintain the road system with that kind of shortage? Already, the pavement condition index is going down, and has been for a while. And the longer we wait to find a solution, the worse they’ll get and the more money it’ll cost to bring them back the next time.”

South county citizens present at the meeting expressed concern that out of the entire population that regularly uses county roads, only landowners within the new district would be required to pay taxes to fund them.

“I live on a fixed income and what I believe is extremely high property tax as it is,” Jack Archer, a long-time resident of Pine Hollow, told the board. “It makes it very difficult to keep up, and we have to live on what we have. But taxes keep going up, so it’s already very hard to live and pay all your taxes. Find some other way.”

Residents who said they owned many acres of land upon which they depended to make a living voiced doubt that such a significant tax hike would allow them to keep their property.

Merl Hvalka, a resident of unincorporated Pine Hollow and owner of WamPinRock News, said he couldn’t fathom why the “largest burden” was being placed on such a small portion of the population.

“My understanding is that under this new district, I and others like me would bear the burden in this while many of the people who use the roads won’t have to pay at all and the people who live in the cities will basically be getting their money back,” he said. “And that simply isn’t fair.”

Since the cities of Maupin, Antelope, Dufur and Shaniko all chose to opt into the district, they would also be required to pay an additional tax. However, the return on investment for small cities such as Maupin is significant as compression loss would be minimal. In The Dalles, compression would force cuts elsewhere in the city budget to compensate for the new road funds.

“It didn’t cost us anything to opt into the district,” Maupin City council member Frank Kay said. “If it passes in November, we get $80,000 a year in real money for our city to do something with our roads in town.”

“I believe in roads and think they’re critical to our economic success, no doubt about it,” said Mike Davis, another area resident. “However, I would like to see a more thoughtful blending of how the funding problem is solved. I would like to see more blending across the board, and not just strictly for property owners. That way, it’s not just putting the burden on one group, but spreads it out and doesn’t alienate one over the other. We all want our roads, so we should all find a way to be able to help pay for it.”

“The $2.03 per thousand is a lot of money to take in a single hit,” said Rob Miles, Bakeoven Road resident and owner of the Imperial River Company. “In talking to a number of ranch families, there’s no way we can pay that. We can do better on our own. Do we get that much value with how much we’re being asked to pay into it? The real answer is no. My point is what I would really suggest to look at probably half of what you’re asking, in other words, about a buck per thousand and then look for some alternative sources combined with making reductions in operating costs. When we’re all living on bottom level to maintain, it puts a whole different perspective on the situation. We can all live on a lot less when push comes to shove.”

“The tax will cost me about $800 a year,” Kay said after the hearing. “If we spread it out so it was more balanced with income and sales tax, those people that don’t own property wouldn’t get out of helping us pay for the work we need done.”

Commissioner Rod Runyon said it was his primary duty as a part of the recent delegation to Washington, D.C. to discuss reigniting the timber industry as a potential funding resource.

“That was my main job to talk to the Washington delegation in DC, and we are continuing that dialogue — that has not quit,” he said. “But the fact is that we can’t just keep waiting and hoping; we have to keep moving forward.”

“We had 10 people spend 18 months trying to find a solution to the funding issue,” Runyon said shortly after the hearing concluded. “They have chosen the district as the No. 1 choice, and it’s our responsibility as a commission to support them and their hard work. As a commission, we can’t impose anything on the people they don’t want to vote for, which is why we’re out here talking about it.”

“I think the kind of discussion we were able to have out here tonight was great,” Commissioner Scott Hege said. “The whole reason we’re out here is to listen to the people and we got a lot of good comments.”

Hege said the commission will continue to have more discussion on the issue in coming months, and that the next public hearing will likely be scheduled in August.

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