Though Sonoma County is set to receive millions of dollars in newly approved state funding to help repair its ailing road network, most of the money won’t come fast enough to fill a projected $3.7 million budget shortfall in a key area of the county’s transportation department.
The expected funding gap in the road operations division stems from a yearslong decline in state gas tax revenues, compounded by rising operational costs and exacerbated further by a separate bill for damage from this year’s severe winter storms, officials said.
A massive transportation funding package that passed the state Legislature in April, SB 1, will help, delivering some $3.8 million in new revenue next fiscal year. In future years, once the legislation’s provisions take full effect, the county expects to receive more than three times that amount annually.
County officials want to use half the new state money next fiscal year to fill the budget hole in the roads operations division, which includes workers who trim trees, fill potholes, repair culverts and maintain bridges, as well as administrative employees who design infrastructure projects, pay bills and answer phones, among other duties.
The transportation department wants to spend the other half of the new state money next year on more visible, one-time paving projects called for by motorists and other road users. The county has already allocated some $65 million in discretionary funds toward improving its roads over the past five years.
The idea is to make sure drivers — who will be taxed more at the pump because of the state legislation — see results, even if that means county officials need to find creative ways of filling the rest of the road operations gap.
“The people that are paying these increased fees, they want to see paving on the road,” said Susan Klassen, the county’s Transportation and Public Works director. “If all the money just disappeared to road operations — yeah, that would be one option ... but then the taxpayers that are paying for the gas tax and the increased fees and stuff are not going to see the benefit, really. It’s invisible to them.”
If the transportation department were to absorb the entire $3.7 million shortfall, it would look to eliminate 28 jobs, including 18 road maintenance workers and 10 administrative employees. But many of those positions are vacant, so Klassen said only five current staffers face potential layoffs. And because she anticipates using the state funding to cover more than half of the road operations shortfall, she hopes to be able to avoid layoffs entirely.
In addition to using $1.9 million of funding from SB 1, the transportation department has outlined a plan to use a total of $600,000 from other county sources, leaving a remaining road operations gap of $1.2 million, according to plans presented Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors.
In future years, the department expects SB 1 will provide enough funds for it to avoid road operations shortfalls.
“What we have is essentially less of a budget issue and more of a cash-flow issue, in my opinion, because of the way SB 1 will come in and provide those funds over the next several years,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who sits on multiple regional transportation boards. “It could be that we dip into reserves and be able to pay those back when the gas tax money increases going forward.”