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2 county officials seek more money, tax hike to fix roads


Two Sonoma County supervisors have proposed temporarily doubling the county's contribution to rural road upkeep and some type of tax increase to boost long-term road funding.

Without an additional, dedicated source of money for county roads, a maintenance backlog that public works officials have described as "staggering" will continue to grow, Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt said.

Their message is contained in a 31-page report being delivered Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors.

Already the problem is so bad that 53 percent of county roads need reconstruction at an estimated cost of $926 million over the next 10 years, the report stated. That is nearly three quarters of the county's annual overall budget.

"It needs to be addressed," Rabbitt said of the maintenance backlog. "We can't just put our heads in the sand."

The problem has developed over decades, as money from state gas taxes — the main source for road upkeep — has remained flat. Support from the county's general fund, meanwhile, has dropped from a nearly-constant $7.8 million a year to $5.3 million in the current fiscal year.

Rabbitt and Zane would improve that picture in the short term by tapping $8 million from a special reserve used to cover delinquent property taxes, shifting it to road upkeep in 2012-2013 and thus doubling the maintenance budget to $15.5 million.

The added one-time funds would pay for rehabilitation of 7.5 miles of roads that the report deemed important to tourism and agriculture. The segments include West Dry Creek Road outside Healdsburg, Westshore Road in Bodega Bay and Adobe Canyon Road off Highway 12. Currently the roads are in "fair" to "at-risk" condition. They would be upgraded to "very good" to "excellent," said Phil Demery, director of the county Department of Transportation and Public Works.

About $1.5 million of the $8 million would be dedicated as seed money to encourage and match citizen efforts to improve county roadways. The idea was a nod to residents who want to help fix sections of road near their homes, Rabbitt and Zane said.

The supervisors' long-term measures, including tax increases, would generate enough additional money — about $3 million to $8 million — to extend basic maintenance to all 1,382 miles of county maintained roads, but not fully address annual reconstruction needs.

That long-range goal would shelve a controversial plan put forward in 2010 that would focus repair funds on only the highest-traveled, most regionally important roads while giving the rest, about 84 percent of the network, only emergency repairs and ultimately allowing them to crumble into gravel.

That strategy proved to be political kryptonite to supervisors. It spawned an advocacy group that has lobbied for increased county road funding and fueled dozens if not hundreds of calls and emails to supervisors' offices from those concerned about abandonment of roads.

"I don't like that word, abandonment," Zane said. "I don't want to abandon roads, and I don't think anyone on this Board of Supervisors wants to abandon roads."

One leading advocate for increased road upkeep called the report a "bold first step" to address the problem.

Still, the supervisors' call for some type of tax increase — it could involve sales, property or hotel bed taxes — could provoke opposition from fiscal watchdogs and taxpayers as well as competition with other state and local funding proposals angling for a place on the ballot.

County leaders have not achieved any results in their bid to reduce soaring employee pension costs, said Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. Those costs for taxpayers, including payments on bond debt, have risen 401 percent in the past 12 years, to $87.2 million a year.

Until that curve is fixed, asking taxpayers for more money "is not acceptable," Atkin said.

"We believe the spending on roads is woefully inadequate," he said. "There's an awful lot of funding for these things if pension costs are simply gotten under control."

Zane and Rabbitt said negotiations on reducing salary and pension costs with employee groups have just begun. Those talks, which are aimed at reducing total compensation by 3 percent, and other moves are not overnight fixes, supervisors said, and waiting to address the road crisis will make it more expensive.

"The bottom line is it took a long time for roads to degrade to their current condition," Rabbitt said. "I think we're embarking on a long-term commitment to really change that direction."

The window for debate on a tax measure for November is tight, with ballot language due by early August.

If polling supports some type of tax and the full Board of Supervisors gives its blessing, meeting that deadline wouldn't be impossible, Zane said.

She acknowledged a tax increase would face an uphill climb among voters.

"But it depends on what the issue is," she said, noting voters recently passed numerous school bond measures. "I think people feel passionately about roads."

Allies of road funding measures include the hundreds of workers represented by the Operating Engineers Local 3, said Chris Snyder, district representative for the Rohnert Park-based union.

"I have hundreds of guys who are still out of work," he said.

The union is looking into polling for a tax increase to support roads.

"There's a need and a (labor) resource to fulfill that need," he said. "It just makes sense."

Still, even local road upkeep advocates are wary of pushing for a tax increase, although they acknowledge the maintenance shortfall is so big it likely can't be solved without one.

"You look at the magnitude of the problem — it's going to take local revenue sources to work," said Michael Troy, co-founder of the group Save Our Sonoma Roads.

Nevertheless, he said, "our position is that (supervisors) should first be looking to fix the pension issue and getting salaries in alignment before they start putting ballot measures before the voters."

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)