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Sonoma County OKs 1-year boost in rural road funding

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.

Under a 2010 plan, about 84 percent of the 1,382-mile network has been slated for only basic repairs, meaning that portion of the system ultimately would be allowed to crumble and become gravel.

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.”





9 Responses to “Sonoma County OKs 1-year boost in rural road funding”

  1. Still Waters says:

    Anyone who thinks that pension costs are the cause of potholes has one in their head! Read the WHOLE article.

    “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”

    If you shut down all of the pensions for all Sonoma County employees & retirees right now you wouldn’t even come close to the Billion Dollars needed to fix the roads, much less provide other public services.

    Sonoma is one a just a few counties that actually kicks in some money for roads but the system was never designed to make the counties 100% responsible for their maintenance.

    But if it makes you feel better to blame the county workers who fix the roads then keep your head deep in that pothole because the truth is a bright and shiny thing you don’t want to deal with.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 6

  2. Jim Bennett says:

    I hate being patronized and lied to by oppressors.
    Don’t stroke us.
    this is 100% ICLEI, don’t ‘soft peddle’ around and act like there’s a legitimate process.
    More and more know what’s really goin’ on.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 7

  3. Billy C says:

    Not to Worry Valery Brown in in South America at an ICLEI conference. I am sure
    they have some answers for our current situation.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 7

  4. We Didn't Do It says:

    The roads get only 10 percent of Measure M. The rest goes to the unsmart train and other non essentials. What a joke. The train never was and will never will be affordable. It has sucked prescious dollars away from necessary road repair and maintenance.

    And the county pension money pit…. No more need be said. All of this done at the direction of the bored of stupidvisors.

    No so long ago the BOS spoke proudly of the roads going to gravel and dirt. You figure who is to blame for this crisis and total mess.

    There ought to be a grand jury investigation of this corruption and those responsible held accountable.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 6

  5. Follower says:

    “…and a search for additional tax revenue to boost long-term road maintenance.”

    That says it all.

    They’re not even CONSIDERING finding waste to cut! No, they just go strait to MORE TAXES AND FEES as the solution.

    It just boggles the mind to think of how many people truly believe that the Government is efficient and frugal with our money as they go to the polls, vote for more taxes and RE-ELECT all the tax & spend liberals.

    Rewarding these pigs by giving them a pat on the back “great job, here’s more of my neighbor’s hard earned money… keep up the good work”!

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 8

  6. Scott P says:

    Wow. 8 million for a backlog of 1 Billion.
    Meanwhile city employees still retire at 55. Still make too much money, contribute virtually zero to their pensions (they shouldn’t have pensions, it should be 401K’s), they pay nothing for their health care, are virtually impossible to fire, get sick leave, vacation pay and other generous benefits.

    Get serious voters and kick these delusional “leaders” out.

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  7. Steveguy says:

    More smoke and mirrors, meanwhile they pay outrageous salaries and pensions. No change except for raises for the inept ‘Management’ of our County ?

    Oh my

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 13

  8. GAJ says:

    Shouldn’t our State Representatives make it a BIG priority to change how the allocation of funding is calculated?

    I was just up in Mendocino and Lake Counties; both Counties have low population and lots of County back roads yet their roads are pristine compared to ours.

    Perhaps the PD should do a story on exactly how that disparity exists and suggest some changes.

    Their roads are in “A” condition while ours are in “D” condition; someone needs to explain to us exactly why that is.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 2

  9. Tim says:

    8 million more to environmentalists they mean and the cost of Asphalt products due to their environmental costs only California has placed on those owners. They need to add 100 million then we’ll see road improve, until then, throwing money away knowing their environmental groups suck most of it up.

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