Friday, January 17, 2014

County leans toward 2-year road levy

Tax increase of 0.1 percent would raise about $16 million

Express Staff Writer

A proposed two-year 0.1 percent property-tax levy would raise more than $8 million per year from county and city residents to boost funding for both county and municipal road projects.
Courtesy graphic

    The Blaine County commissioners have informed local cities that they are leaning toward seeking a two-year property-tax levy to raise about $16 million to provide more funds for the county’s Road and Bridge Department.
    According to a letter from the commissioners dated Jan. 14, the levy would be for no more than 0.1 percent of property valuation, and, as required by state law, half the funds generated by city property taxes would be returned to the cities.
    As proposed, the levy would raise about $8 million annually, of which about $2.7 million would go to the cities for their own street projects, leaving about $5.4 million annually for the county.
    The commissioners told the cities that if a levy is pursued and funds are to be made available for fiscal year 2015, a special election would need to be held by May, and the county would need to approve ballot language by the third week of March.
     The commissioners have been weighing options for more road funding since last spring, when county Director of Operations Char Nelson presented a woeful assessment of county roads. Nelson said that unless the county finds a way to increase the department’s budget, conditions on both paved and gravel roads will continue to deteriorate, and expenses will increase as maintenance is delayed.
    County road and bridge maintenance was once funded 40 percent by property taxes, but since the mid-1990s has been funded by state and federal gas taxes and “mitigation fees” from subdivision developers. Revenue from both those sources has declined as subdivision development has stagnated and gas tax revenue has failed to keep pace with inflation. The 25-cent state and 18-cent federal gas taxes were set nearly 20 years ago, and because they’re a flat fee per gallon rather than a percentage of purchase amount, the revenue raised has fallen far behind the department’s costs for fuel and asphalt.
    During a meeting with the county commissioners Tuesday, Nelson said 21 percent of the 2014 road and bridge budget comes from reserves.
    “It’s a non-sustainable mode of operation that we need to change,” she said.
    Nelson told the commissioners that maintaining asphalt roads in a condition of 10 to 13 years of life expectancy is most cost-effective, but the county’s roads now average only 8.5 years.
    In an interview, she said the department would like to apply Dustgard to 200 miles of the county’s 266 miles of dirt roads each year, but has enough money for only 40 miles.
    “We’re pretty much only Dustgarding in front of houses and where we put down materials,” she said.
    She said the department should spend about $900,000 per year for the next two years to replace old equipment.
    The commissioners’ letter states that the county communicated with the cities in August about its funding needs, and all but one (Sun Valley) responded. Those responding expressed possible interest in a levy at a rate less than 0.2 percent, with funds accruing to the city, the letter states.
    Nelson said the department has set a budget of $6,945,000 per year over the next two years to put it onto a road maintenance schedule that will begin to reverse the current downward trend in county roads’ life expectancy. She said the $5.4 million raised annually by a 0.1 percent levy added to the department’s projected 2014 revenue of $1.5 million would almost get there.
    “A two-year levy would allow us to demonstrate what we can do with the money that the taxpayers give us,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “But it won’t be a long-term solution. We would probably have to come back to the voters in another two years.”
    The commissioners said they hope Gov. Butch Otter and the state Legislature will be more supportive of an increase in the gas tax two years from now, but agreed that it almost certainly will not happen during the current session.
    “Short-term, I think this is the only solution,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said of the proposed levy.
    The commissioners’ letter states that the county has made an effort through public meetings to explain to county residents the funding needed and the options available.
    “The purpose of this memo is to urge you to develop your proposals promptly and to hold similar informational public meetings about how your city would spend special levy funds on your transportation infrastructure, assuming that is still your desire,” the letter states.
    At the meeting, Hulen Meadows resident Barbara Brown urged the commissioners to try to persuade the Blaine County School District to share some of the money that it collects through property taxes. She said 72 percent of her property tax goes to the district, and she pointed out that the district’s 2013-14 budget includes nearly $14 million in unappropriated funds.
    “If you would instigate talks with the school board, you might be surprised at the reception you would receive,” she said. “Go to bat for all the taxpayers. Stress that you need some property taxes here [for road funding].”

For more information
Previous stories on county road and bridge funding can be found by searching on the Idaho Mountain Express website:
“County faces crisis in road budget” (May 31, 2013), “County eyes highway funding levy” (July 12, 2013). To view a Powerpoint presentation on county road funding, go to and click on “Road & Bridge Funding” on the home page.

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