By PETE GOLIS
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Thanks to the Road Warrior blog at pressdemocrat.com, we learned last week that the group called Save Our Sonoma Roads wants to know how you would pay to repair the county’s rural roads. (Check out the survey at SOSRoads.org.)
You have to like SOSRoads. While other groups complain about the decline of government services, the people involved with SOSRoads organized to do something about it.
And who can blame them? The condition of country roads in Sonoma County is embarrassing — and the situation is only going to get worse. From damaged automobiles to the loss of tourism dollars, all kinds of negative consequences come into play when roads deteriorate.
We can round up the usual suspects — an antiquated tax system, shortsighted politicians, decades of neglect, higher costs, a recession.
When it would have mattered, almost nobody complained that government wasn’t taking care of streets, roads, highways and other public investments.
And so now we arrive at the intersection of declining tax revenues and old expectations about government’s promises to its citizenry.
When times were flush, critics say, government went on a spending binge that now limits its ability to honor its commitments — while coping with an economic recession and the budget shortfalls that came with it.
There is some truth to their complaint. But the question remains: Now what? When it comes to road maintenance, government may have abdicated its responsibility, but a recitation of past failures won’t cancel out the financial realities of today.
SOSRoads did manage to persuade the Board of Supervisors to come up with a few million one-time dollars more for road maintenance. But all sides recognize there is no silver bullet here. No one can explain where the county will find the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to restore 1,382 miles of county roads.
One study said it would cost $926 million over 10 years to modernize about half the county’s rural road system.
The SOSRoads survey offers up a laundry list of possible solutions — some realistic, some not. If you take the online survey, you can choose to increase road funding by:
Laying off 5 percent of the county workforce.
Reducing the compensation of county employees by 5 percent. (SOSRoads and county employees may not be best friends any time soon.)
Imposing a $20 fee on every vehicle in Sonoma County and using the money for city streets and county roads.
Increasing the hotel tax.
Extending the quarter-cent transportation sales tax and making most of the money available for county roads and city streets.
Establishing road maintenance districts that impose parcel taxes of $300 to $500 to repair and maintain roads in the areas served by the districts.
Everyone will find something not to like about these options. In that way, the road maintenance controversy serves as a microcosm of the push and shove of competing interests that every community faces in a time of government austerity.
Credit the authors of the survey for acknowledging that money doesn’t fall from the sky. Real solutions, as opposed to complaining and posturing, require us to choose among competing needs.
There will be no perfect solution. By trial and error, communities will do the best they can, cobbling together some combination of responses that involves compromise, sacrifice, innovation and concessions to a changed economic landscape.
In simple terms, government will learn to get by with less, and government will be smaller.
It would be helpful if state and local governments could re-invent themselves along the way. The consequences of smaller government would be less damaging if the sprawl of state and local agencies could consolidate services, cut red tape and eliminate redundancies.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to spin off some state responsibilities to local government may represent the first steps in this re-invention (though local agencies ought to worry they will be stuck with the obligations without the money necessary to pay the bills).
Over time, these reforms likely will occur, but the changes will be incremental — and slow. You may have noticed that government doesn’t do change very well. Always, there will be some group eager to oppose any assault on the status quo.
If you live on a rural road in Sonoma County, you will be disappointed by the suggestion here that government won’t be doing all that you expected it to do.
If it’s any consolation, you won’t be the only ones experiencing that disappointment.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.