By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Since purchasing their Sonoma Mountain Road property in 1999, Ken and Karen Adelson have grown frustrated watching the narrow two-lane road deteriorate to rock and dirt in some places.
“It’s a dreadful stretch, not just for motorists but for cyclists and anyone who walks up there,” said Ken Adelson, who is a lawyer.
The couple are keeping close tabs on the 1st District supervisor’s race and at what the five candidates propose to fix and maintain roads. The issue resonates not just in Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa, but across the county, where the voices of complaint get louder with each new pothole.
The question is: with a maintenance backlog of $120 million and only $4.5 million dedicated to long-term road upkeep, does anything the 1st District candidates suggest stand any chance of finding support among the public or generating enough money to put a dent in the problem?
Three of the five candidates in the race say part of the solution lies in asking county residents to raise their taxes.
“We’re going to have to put that choice in front of the voters,” Sonoma Valley energy consultant Mark Bramfitt said. “This is really a case where we simply don’t have enough money.”
Bramfitt mentioned an increase in property or parcel taxes, or a new assessment district, as well as higher gas taxes statewide.
Gina Cuclis, a Boyes Hot Springs communications consultant, said the problem with road conditions “is so large that it’s going to take multiple funding streams and solutions.”
She specifically mentioned increasing the county’s hotel bed taxes by 2 percent and applying that money to roads.
Santa Rosa Councilwoman Susan Gorin said she supports the current Board of Supervisors taking a look at possibly raising bed taxes or creating a new road maintenance district. But she would not say whether she supports either of those options.
“Right now I am supporting looking at every potential source of funding to create the kind of funding we need to bring our roads up to standard,” Gorin said.
Santa Rosa Councilman John Sawyer and Sonoma Mayor Joanne Sanders said they oppose raising taxes.
Sanders advocates conducting an audit of what county employees earn, particularly in administration, and comparing that with what employees in similar jobs in other counties and in the private sector earn.
Sanders said she’d seek $60 million in savings through a 10 percent cut in county payrolls.
The county’s payroll records, however, show that $300 million was paid out in salaries in 2011. Therefore, a 10 percent across-the-board pay cut would generate about half of Sanders’ target amount.
In a follow-up conversation, Sanders said the $60 million savings still would be possible with job consolidations an additional payroll cuts.
Sanders said the money achieved through payroll reductions could be diverted to roads. She said another source of revenue could come through changes to public employee retirements, which so far is the other hot-button issue in the 1st District race. All of the candidates to one degree or another favor such changes.
Sawyer’s focus has been on asking voters for approval to re-apportion Measure M funds and devote a higher percentage to road maintenance. The quarter-percent transportation sales tax was approved by county voters in 2004 and currently generates $1.35 million annually for routine road maintenance out of a total of $17 million.
Sawyer mentioned the Farmers Lane extension in Santa Rosa — a $41 million long-range project that could be eligible for some Measure M funding — as one project that could be delayed because he said growth “has not occurred there as quickly as we thought.”
Measure M also funds Highway 101 improvements and construction related to the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit System.
Sawyer said his desire is for the proposed Measure M changes to make the November ballot, otherwise he said it would require a special election or wait another two years to put the issue before voters. He also advocates extending Measure M for another 20 years.
“I would like to use the tools we have before asking people for more taxes,” he said.
Sawyer’s opponents called his plans off-base.
Cuclis said it would be “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to re-allocate Measure M funds, while Gorin said she was “pessimistic that we’d get all of the parties to agree on what they wanted the re-allocation to be.”
Bramfitt credited Sawyer for “thinking outside the box.” But he said the Measure M plan “does not fill that big hole.”
All of the revenue-generating plans outside of an increase in the state’s gas tax that are being floated by several of the candidates would not generate nearly enough money in the short-term to repair the county’s roads and pay for annual maintenance.
County staff estimates that an additional $6.6 million could be found for road maintenance in unincorporated areas of the county through a combination of a 3-percent increase in hotel bed taxes, a county-wide quarter-percent sales tax and by extending Measure M for another 20 years.
That amount would be just the county government’s portion of those increases, and not all of it would automatically be earmarked for road maintenance but would require supervisors to set spending priorities, said Tom O’Kane, the county’s deputy director of public works.
The county currently budgets $4.5 million a year for upkeep of its 1,382-mile road network, and for now, focuses maintenance efforts on 219 miles of heavily-traveled roads.
The county has received $5 million annually in federal funds in the past for road maintenance. That amount is uncertain for next fiscal year.
Supervisors in February also voted to increase spending on long-term road maintenance — known as “pavement preservation” — by $2.2 million by tapping a portion of the franchise fees paid by solid waste haulers.
“There’s no silver bullet here,” O’Kane said.