Blaine County voters are headed toward an election in May to decide whether to raise about $7 million over two years in additional property taxes to fix county and city roads.
The county has been facing a widening gap between its road and bridge maintenance needs and the money available to fund them, which comes almost entirely from state and federal gas tax revenue. As maintenance is delayed, the repair cost per road mile increases. During a county commissioners meeting Tuesday, County Administrator Derek Voss said asphalt on 75 percent of the county’s paved roads is older than the optimum replacement age, and 80 percent of its gravel roads are in need of repair.
Since July, the commissioners have been considering a property-tax levy to raise the needed money.
“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said. “We need to do this and we need to do it now.”
The main issue addressed by the commissioners Tuesday was whether to ask voters for levy funds that would be shared with all the local cities or would be spent solely by the county.
State law allows property-tax levies to raise up to 0.2 percent in market value if the money raised from city residents is split with the cities, or up to 0.084 percent if all is spent by the county.
The additional $3.5 million in annual funding requested by the county Road and Bridge Department for the next two years is less than what would be raised by an 0.084 percent levy, so either would work. The only consideration is a political one.
Both Commissioners Greenberg and Angenie McCleary contended that including funding for the cities would incentivize voters to pass the levy. All the valley’s cities except Sun Valley have expressed support for the levy, but Commissioner Larry Schoen said they had made no effort to make a case for it to their voters, and argued for a county-only levy.
“To me it’s a no-brainer.”
The city of Hailey has encouraged the commissioners to hold the election sometime other than May, when it will be placing a sewer bond on its ballot. However, Hailey City Attorney Ned Williamson attended the meeting Tuesday and acknowledged that a May election date for the levy seems inevitable.
“I can assure you that Hailey will have a plan for the funds and would like to see the county go ahead and proceed with a levy,” he said. “If the residents of the cities see a benefit, it will increase your chance of having a successful levy.”
Greenberg said he would like each of the cities to provide voters with a list of projects to be funded by the levy money.
The levy would raise a total of $5.24 million per year, of which $1.73 million would be distributed to the cities proportional to the amount raised in each city.
Voss said the $3.5 million allocated to the county each year would be added to the Road and Bridge Department’s existing budget of about $1.53 million, which would cover about $1 million in operations costs and $500,000 to replace old equipment.
“We would use all the money that we are requesting from [voters] on road projects,” he said.
The department projects that if current funding levels are continued for the next six years, taxpayers will need to spend an additional $4 million to bring the county’s asphalt roads to an optimal state than they will if they start spending an additional $1.4 million per year now.
To raise the amount needed, the proposed .06487 percent levy would increase property taxes by $64.87 per $100,000 valuation, at 2013 valuations. A county-only levy would increase taxes by $43.45 per $100,000 to raise about the same amount of money for the county.
The commissioners agreed to ask the county’s legal staff to draw up a resolution to be voted on at next week’s meeting so that ballot language can be submitted to County Clerk JoLynn Drage by March 11, in time for an election date of May 20.
Schoen said the county will need to find another source of funding after the temporary levy expires.
“We’re biting this off in a small bite and doing what we can during the two-year levy period in a way that can be justified to the public,” he said.
One potential means of increasing road-and-bridge money during the next two years is an increase in the 25-cent state gas tax, which was enacted in 1996. A bill to do that was introduced in the Legislature on Feb. 7. It has not been reported out of the House Transportation and Defense Committee.
Greg Moore: email@example.com