Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Commissioners put road levy on ballot

Tax increase would raise $5.24 million

Express Staff Writer

    Blaine County voters will decide in May whether to increase their property taxes for two years to raise nearly $10.5 million to improve road maintenance in the county and in their towns.
    The commissioners unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday to place the question on the May 20 ballot.
    The levy is proposed under a state law that distributes half the money raised from city property owners to the cities that contain that property.
    The department has requested an additional $3.5 million per year over the next two years to begin to restore the county’s paved roads to the optimum cost-effective service life of 10-13 years, from their current average of 8.5 years. Without an infusion of money, the average service life will drop to 6.5 years.
    Commissioner Larry Schoen said the amount requested was arrived at by estimating the amount of maintenance work that could be done each year with the department’s existing staff and equipment.
    Of the $5.24 million raised by the levy each year, an estimated $1.73 million would be distributed to the county’s five cities proportional to the amount raised in each city.
    To raise the amount needed, an estimated .06487 percent levy would increase property taxes by $64.87 per $100,000 valuation, at 2013 valuations.
    However, county Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves said the exact amounts that would be received by each city and the exact mill levy will not be known until 2014 property assessments are completed late this summer.
    “The only thing we know for sure is that we need the $5.24 million,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said.
    Ninety percent of the county’s road maintenance funds come from federal and state fuel taxes. The federal tax was set in 1994 at 18 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24 cents for diesel, and the state tax was set in 1996 at 25 cents per gallon.
    Schoen said his attendance at a National Association of Counties conference in Washington, D.C., in early March confirmed to him that Blaine County is far from alone in its road-funding predicament.
    “Virtually every other county in the United States is facing the problems that we face, which is flat fuel taxes and increasing expenses,” he said.
    The commissioners have acknowledged that even if the levy passes, an additional source of funds will be needed after two years. One potential source is an increase in the state fuel tax. A bill to raise the tax by 2 cents every two years for the next six years has been introduced in the Idaho House of Representatives. It was referred to the Transportation and Defense Committee on Feb. 10, but has not received a vote there.
    Greenberg said he has written a letter to all three District 26 representatives explaining that a 6-cent increase will not be nearly enough to solve Blaine County’s funding shortfall.
    Schoen said other states have enacted various methods of raising more money through user fees, including an increase in vehicle registration fees and a wheel fee.
    However, a property-tax levy appears to be the county’s only immediate option.
    “We are going to have a simple message,” Schoen said. “These are your roads and these are your property taxes and it’s your decision.”

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