Terms surrounding the County Roads Department’s proposed creation of a new taxingdistrict have yet to be finalized since Wasco County Commissioners agreed May 7 to postpone a decision until more discussion between the county and city governments can take place.
A joint meeting with the city of The Dalles on the issue has been set for 9 a.m. Friday, May 23, in the Klickitat room at the Department of Human Services, 3641 Klindt Drive, The Dalles. The meeting is open to the public.
“It’s a big county,” Commissioner Rod Runyon said later. “People forget we have several other communities that have to pass a resolution if they want to be involved in this sort of thing, so what we’re doing is getting ready to make a decision and if they have thoughts and want to weigh in on that, we’re giving them the opportunity to do so.”
A feasibility report from the Road Advisory Committee highlighted the department’s most pressing needs and identified several options to collect the funds it needs to fix and maintain the county’s “deteriorating” road system.
“The report is a result of a 16-month process,” Marty Matherly, director of public works, said. “And our hope is that it will allow you to understand the magnitude of the funding shortage we’re facing.”
Option one involves no new funding, instead drawing down road department beginning fund balance, leaving the existing road system to progressively decline.
“Just one of the major problems with this one is it’s not a long-term solution,” County Roads Project Manager Arthur Smith told county commissioners during his presentation of the feasibility report. “It’s five to seven years max of drawing down the beginning fund balance and, after that, we frankly do not know. At that point, our funding levels wouldn’t even be sufficient to keep the doors open.”
“Based on the report,” he said, “this option does not adequately protect a vital public resource. We have a $300 million transportation system and, if you let it go, you’ll need many millions to bring it back.”
Included in the report were figures based on public opinion data gathered by the Road Advisory Committee at each of their over 20 publicly held meetings during the past year. According to these statistics, the majority of the public does not support the no-funding option, with well over half of voters rating the importance of road services in almost every category as “very important.”
The second option, the creation of a county-wide vehicle registration fee, would provide enough funding to maintain the reduced level of current services levels to “save the existing paved road system,” he said..
At a maximum of $43 per year, the estimated amount the county would receive is $730,000 a year in funding, with the city receiving $487,000 a year. However, Smith said, this amount would only allow the department to keep up the paved roads. About “60 percent of the county’s roads are unpaved; these would continue to deteriorate and [the department] would still not be able to sufficiently maintain them under this funding scenario.”
The last option would be a county-wide road service district, resulting in $1.6 million to $1.9 million in revenues. “It’s the only option that would allow us to get the funding we need in order to provide an outstanding level of service,” Smith said.
Gravel road maintenance, adequate personnel and “back funding” for grants and special projects as well as some additional room to accommodate inflation and potential cost increases would “all become a part of the package again” under this funding option.
As part of the county-wide option, a permanent tax rate of about $1.23 per thousand would need to be introduced, which would yield the $1.6 million for county roads and $750 thousand for the city’s. However, under this scenario, the existing tax compression “could easily double,” or even see an up to 200 percent increase.
If the City of The Dalles was not included in the service district, boundaries would need to be drawn and the tax rate would have to increase to about $2.03. However, as a result of this second option, the issue of compression could be avoided.
The creation of a road district and levying of a fixed tax rate of at least $1.23, Smith said, would allow the department to become “sustainable, predictable and flexible.” As the ultimate authority on the county road district, the board of commissioners would have the ability to adjust the tax rate as needed and the generated funds “would ensure the department would be able to provide a safe and well-maintained travel system for the public on a long-term basis.”
For this reason, both Smith and Matherly agreed the creation of a county road district was the only option that guaranteed the department’s overall sustainability, and that the current aim is to put the decision to voters on the November 2014 ballot. Commissioner Scott Hege emphasized the need for communication between the city and county on the issue before the board makes a final decision.
“We’ve got to work cooperatively to figure this out,” he said. “We need to sit down with the city council, have a discussion with them and see if there is a way to somehow develop a plan of unity before moving forward.”
City Manager Nolan young was present at the May 7 board of commissioners meeting and said that he was willing “to have more dialogue” on the matter involving the city council. “The need to move apace is critical if you want to get this on the ballot in November,” he said.
“We’re losing our federal moneys,” Commissioner Steve Kramer said. “And that’s why we’ve got to start local and start taking care of ourselves at home.”
The commission will need to approvee a motion to initiate the formation of the new district by June 6 in order to meet the strict timeframe requirements and ensure the department’s petition makes it onto the November ballot.