Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Property-tax levy remains likely road-funding option

State bill could raise gas tax

Express Staff Writer

A motorist travels on Gannett Road in southern Blaine County, one of the busiest roads maintained by county government. Express file photo

    Despite opposition from the city of Sun Valley, the Blaine County commissioners appear to be leaning toward placing a two-year property-tax levy to raise money for road and bridge maintenance on the May ballot.
    The proposed 0.1 percent levy would raise about $8 million annually, of which about $2.7 million would go to the four local cities for their own street projects and $5.4 million would go to the county.
    The commissioners have been weighing options for more road funding since last spring, when county Director of Operations Char Nelson informed them 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. Nelson said 21 percent of the 2014 road and bridge budget comes from reserves.
    If a levy is pursued and funds are to be made available for fiscal year 2015, a special election will need to be held by May, and the county will need to approve ballot language by the third week of March.
    On Tuesday, commission Chair Larry Schoen said County Clerk JoLynn Drage told him she would like to have a decision from the commissioners by March 11. He said that leaves the commissioners three meetings in which to make a decision.
    The county has received letters of support for a levy from the cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue, though Hailey encouraged the commissioners to hold the election sometime other than May, when it will be placing a sewer bond on its ballot. The commissioners will meet with the Carey City Council to discuss the issue on Tuesday.
    Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said he has received little feedback from the public on the issue, and suggested that the county make more effort to explain it. He said he thinks most voters would support the idea if they understand the consequences of continuing to underfund the Road and Bridge Department.
    Commissioner Angenie McCleary said, “There’s no better way to hear from the public than to put something on the ballot.”
    Another funding option, raised by Greenberg, is an increase in the fees for registering a vehicle in Blaine County. Under state law, the county has the authority to double the fees, but only upon approval by a majority of voters. By state law, the current fees range from $24 to $48 depending on the age of the vehicle.

There’s no better way to hear from the public than to put something on the ballot.”
Angenie McCleary

    According to the 2012 Blaine County Transportation Plan, registration fees amounted to $724,000 in 2011. Thus, an additional $724,000 could be raised, though state law requires 30 percent of that to be distributed to the county’s cities, unless the cities agree otherwise. The default split would amount to $529,000 to the county.
    The commissioners agreed to obtain more information on that option, including on whether the county has exercised it in the past.
    About 90 percent of the Road and Bridge Department’s revenue comes from federal and state gas taxes. The 18-cents-per-gallon federal tax was imposed in 1994 and the 25-cent state tax in 1996. The flat-rate taxes have no provision for inflation—thus, the increasing gap between road maintenance funding and expenses.
    The commissioners have expressed little hope that the state will raise its gas tax this year, and have proposed the temporary levy in the hope that it may do so in another year or two.
    However, the county could obtain some relief sooner than expected.
    A bill to raise the gas tax was introduced in the Legislature on Feb. 7. House Bill 480 would raise the 25-cent tax by 2 cents every year for three years beginning July 1, 2014.
    Both local representatives, Donna Pence, D-Gooding, and Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, said there is a reasonable chance the measure could pass this session. Miller said in an interview that most legislators seem to realize that the longer road maintenance is postponed, the more it will cost.
    “From my perspective, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think some of these guys are worried about the politics of it, but I’m not.”
    Nelson said in an interview that it’s impossible to say how much money the tax increase would bring to Blaine County. She said the county’s share of state gas taxes changes each year according to changes in population and road mileages in all the state’s counties.
    “I don’t think it would solve the problem, but certainly any increase would be helpful,” she said.

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