By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously backed a one-year, $8 million increase in road funding and a search for additional tax revenue to boost long-term road maintenance.
The moves were intended to address a reconstruction backlog of nearly $1 billion and tamp down public furor over the beleaguered state of county-maintained roads.
Supervisors want to avoid that scenario. The plan they endorsed Tuesday, major parts of which remain unformed, was a first step toward dealing with a funding shortfall that’s developed over decades, they said.
“It’s very clear that this board is dealing with a legacy problem,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire. “We are just starting to dig out of the mess we’re in.”
Road funding advocates welcomed the one-time funding boost, which would roughly double the county’s annual contribution to road upkeep, to $15.5 million in 2012-2013.
Still, they called that amount a “drop in the bucket” compared to the overall maintenance backlog. And they held back their support for a tax increase, saying the county needs to significantly reduce salary and pension costs before asking taxpayers for more money for roads.
“Without pension reform, nothing is going to happen on roads,” said Mike Windsor, a Sebastopol area resident who has called for greater road spending.
The two hour hearing on one of the county’s hottest political issues centered on short- and long-term road funding recommendations put forward last week by Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt in a 31-page report.
The full board endorsed most of their proposals, including the short-term funding boost, which targets reconstruction of about 7.5 miles of roads countywide.
The board did not weigh in on a preferred type of tax increase.
Zane and Rabbitt had proposed a number of options involving sales, property or hotel bed taxes. They estimated the increases could raise $3 million to $8 million a year for road upkeep.
“We’d be foolish not to find additional dollars to spend on our fair-to-good (condition) roads in order to prevent them from deteriorating,” said Zane.
Already, 53 percent of the 1,382-mile network needs reconstruction, at a estimated cost of $926 million over the next 10 years, county officials say.
“We’re behind the eight ball on that,” said Rabbitt. “The problem didn’t happen overnight and the solution is not going to happen overnight.”
County officials point to flat revenue from state gas taxes, long the main source of money for road upkeep. It is allocated using a decades-old formula that heavily favors highly populated counties. Those with smaller populations but large rural road networks, such as Sonoma County, lose out, officials say.
Sonoma County is among a minority of counties that contribute local revenues toward road upkeep, making up on average a quarter of its roads budget through money from the county general fund.
Over the past decade, however, the county has been dedicating less to roads. That happened even in good years when property tax revenue, the main source of county money for roads, was on the rise. In the past four years as property tax revenue has declined, the funding dropoff has been even steeper, going from $7.8 million — or about four percent of general fund property tax revenue in 2008-2009 — to a current-year figure of $5.3 million, or about 3 percent of general fund property tax revenue, records show.
The county also gets little maintenance funding from Measure M, the countywide quarter-cent transportation sales tax. About 10 percent of its revenue goes to support rural road upkeep, supervisors said.
While nearly half of every property tax dollar goes to schools, the county receives about 28 cents, and about one and a half cents goes to road upkeep, said Phil Demery, director of the county Department of Transportation and Public Works.
“We have really kicked the can down the street in terms of infrastructure,” he said. “This has been decades in happening. And it’s not just here in Sonoma County or in California. It’s across the nation.”
Some fiscal watchdogs said county officials were mostly to blame. A root cause of the roads crisis, they said, was soaring county pension costs, up 401 percent for taxpayers in the past 12 years, to $87.2 million a year.
“I have a hard time buying a lot of excuses,” said Ken Churchill, a Santa Rosa winemaker who has pressed for overhaul of the county retirement system. He said roads and other services have been shortchanged primarily by rising employee compensation costs.
Supervisor McGuire took issue with that assessment.
“Yes, pensions are definitely one of the issues,” he said, noting the board’s bid to reduce salary and benefit costs in ongoing contract talks. “But to paint it as the issue is not accurate.”
The report by Zane and Rabbitt had identified for reconstruction 7.5 miles of roads important for tourism and agriculture. They included part of West Dry Creek Road outside Healdsburg, Westshore Road in Bodega Bay and Adobe Canyon Road off Highway 12.
McGuire and Supervisor Efren Carrillo requested more time to provide input on that list, suggesting other road segments in their districts might better qualify for the $8 million in one-time funds.
Carrillo also took issue with a proposal to use about $1.5 million of those funds as seed money to encourage and match citizen efforts to repair county roads. He worried that low-income communities would be left out of the mix and that roads repaired under the program would not fit with county priorities.
County public works officials agreed to return with more details on that proposal.
Several audience members, meanwhile, said any push for another transportation-related tax needs to be sold to voters.
Steve Birdlebough, an advocate for public transit spending, urged the board not to forget transit users. Any tax increase should be used to maintain and expand bus service in the county as well as support road upkeep, he said.
A local labor union representing road workers is looking into polling to gauge public support for a ballot measure.
Without broad buy-in, a ballot measure this November would be doomed, said Gina Cuclis, a Boyes Hot Springs resident and recent candidate for county supervisor.
“Is (a tax increase)actually going to come back to fix my road? I can tell you what people are thinking. It’s ‘no,’” said Cuclis. “These discussions need to get out of this room. They need to get out into the neighborhoods.”