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.