Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday approved a small addition to the list of county roads targeted for long-term maintenance while signaling support for study of a possible property tax increase to boost road upkeep.
Board members cited county budget pressure and flat state road funding as two of the reasons for the makeshift moves and revenue search. The $4.5 million currently allocated toward long-term upkeep is woefully short of the $120 million maintenance backlog saddling the county's 1,382-mile network.
Supervisors tentatively agreed the problem may require a tax increase, possibly in the form of a countywide road maintenance district.
"Politically, it's not an easy thing to take on because it's going to take a huge amount of money to solve," said Supervisor David Rabbitt. "And it's probably going to come from the citizens of the county."
The three main taxing options supervisors discussed Tuesday involve a road maintenance district of some form that would require two-thirds approval by voters.
County administrative leaders said they also are studying other options to boost funding, including an increase in hotel bed taxes.
Any tax increase could face an uphill climb, several supervisors said, and would have to show taxpayers progress on other fronts, such as holding down rising retirement costs, one of the key factors of county budget problems.
"We are committed to solving one of our county's toughest challenges," Supervisor Mike McGuire said, referring to road upkeep. But "it's going to take additional revenue enhancements to be able to deal with this challenge."
The comments came before an audience including fiscal watchdogs, two supervisorial candidates and advocates of increased county funding for road maintenance.
One of those advocates, Michael Troy, co-founder of the new group Save Our Sonoma Roads, said he and his fellow members "did not start out to get a new tax" and didn't have a stance yet on whether they would back one.
"It may be a solution in the long run," said Troy, a Penngrove resident. "But our main mission is public education. The county has to make decisions about its priorities."
Some speakers were sharply critical of any step toward a tax increase, saying the county needed to shift money from other services to roads.
"If you follow the money it shows where the priorities are and it's not roads," said Robert Williamson, a Mark West-area resident who frequently addresses the board on fiscal management. He pointed to increased spending on health and human services — much of which is state and federal money — and rising pension costs as factors.
"After this conscious reduction (in road funding) you come and say &‘Well, gee, we're going to have to find some special funding mechanism in order to find some longer term funding?'" Williamson said. "Roads should not be discriminated against."
Others said a study of new taxes for roads was warranted.
Any ultimate move will need community support, said Gina Cuclis, a Boyes Hot Springs communication consultant and candidate for the 1st District supervisor's seat that represents Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa.
"You have to have a messenger to sell it," Cuclis said.
Santa Rosa Councilwoman Susan Gorin was the other 1st District supervisorial candidate sitting in on the discussion.
In addition to authorizing further study of the tax issue, the board Tuesday increased spending on long-term road maintenance — the county calls it "pavement preservation" — by about $2.2 million.