Sonoma County's roads are falling apart.
The good news, thanks to federal stimulus funds, is that they aren't falling apart as fast as was projected four years ago. But the deterioration continues, and given its budget challenges, the county is unlikely to ever catch up.
As a recent staff report notes, transportation revenues are "woefully inadequate" to address the county's needs for maintaining 1,382 miles of roads. And the situation is not likely to improve anytime soon.
This prompted the county to get realistic when it adopted a new road plan about three years ago. Supervisors so far have identified 156 miles of the most well-traveled roads to be part of a priority program. And today they will talk about adding another 63 miles of roads to the priority list. The big issue: where to find $4.5 million a year to pay for it.
County staff says about $2.5 million can be found by cutting off all maintenance of 105 miles of lightly traveled roads and essentially letting them convert to gravel— along with the 1,200 miles of roads not on the priority list. Staff also recommends abandoning 109 miles of dead-end streets and eliminating brush-clearing along all roads, shifting that responsibility to property owners.
These are all difficult steps that almost certainly will create problems and financial burdens for many property owners. But they represent the kind of difficult priority-setting decisions that government leaders need to make in a time of austerity.
As for finding the other $2 million, county staff has recommended a number of potential revenue-generating sources:
; Taking most of the franchise fee charged to the county's two waste haulers and allocating it to road maintenance for a gain of $2.2 million a year.
; Increasing the hotel bed tax in unincorporated areas from 9 percent to 12 percent, generating $2.5 million.
; Asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax for all nine cities and the county, thus adding roughly $3.5 million for roads.
; Extending Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax for transportation that was passed in 2004, for another 20 years. This would bring in roughly $600,000 a year.
These options are tempting. But before supervisors can hope to get voter approval for additional tax revenue, they need to fill the major hole in the county's overall budget, particularly those related to retirement costs.
As we've noted, since 2008, annual taxpayer contributions to the pension system have increased 25 percent to $48.4 million. And that doesn't include the $43 million in annual payments to cover the debt on the county's pension obligation bonds. Just a 5 percent reduction in annual taxpayer contributions would more than make up for the $2 million in funding needed for road repair.
The county deserves credit for its pragmatic and honest approach to dealing with the realities about county thoroughfares. But supervisors should be hesitant about going down this road. Until the county shows it's serious about pension reform, seeking taxpayer support for any tax increase will be a bumpy ride.