County Council discusses ballot measure that would permanently increase road levy
Posted May 9, 2022 at 12:14 pm by Jeff Arnim
Faced with the task of overseeing aging road and marine infrastructure in an era of increasing costs, limited revenue, and more extreme weather, the County Council last week discussed the possibility of introducing a measure on the November 2022 ballot that would permanently increase the County’s road levy.
The additional funding would be allocated to three key areas – stabilizing the County’s road fund, repairing the County’s public marine facilities, and providing initial funding for a limited number of non-motorized transportation projects.
The current road levy sits at $0.56 per $1,000 of assessed value for properties located outside of the incorporated areas of Friday Harbor – roughly $280 per year for a home with an assessed value of $500,000 – and is expected to generate $5.03 million in funding for 2022. One proposal outlined by the County’s Public Works department suggested increasing the levy amount to $0.76, which would generate $1.8 million in additional revenue in the first year.
The County is just coming out of an exceptionally wet winter season that required its Public Works crews to mitigate dozens of road washouts, culvert collapses, and mudslides – likely a preview of the broad impact that changing weather patterns will have on its infrastructure in the decades to come.
The County also has to contend with the fact that fuel taxes, which represent ten percent of revenue for the road fund, have been flat in recent years. And despite long-term efforts by the County to streamline operating expenses – such as reducing staff and fleet sizes, selling excess properties, limiting capital expenditures only to emergency needs, and scaling back or eliminating deferred maintenance programs – only eight percent of road funding is currently available for project work after accounting for employee costs, equipment, materials, supplies, fees, and debt service.
Looking back as far as the early 1970s, County officials could not find an instance of the road levy having been increased. San Juan County’s population is nearly five times larger today.
Given the funding challenges facing the County both now and in the future, two Council members and County Auditor Milene Henley agreed at the May 3 Council meeting that any increase to the road levy should be permanent, not temporary. One of the scenarios outlined by the Public Works department at the meeting had proposed lifting the levy amount only for a period of six years.
“There is no hope that this is going to be better in six years,” Henley said. “Costs keep going up, projects continue, infrastructure fails, so we need to make a permanent change – and personally I don’t think 20 cents is enough.”
“We need [the additional funding] just to keep our roads opens,” explained Councilmember Jamie Stephens of Lopez Island. “If we just added up our culvert repairs in the past couple of years, we’re close to a million [dollars] right there. We need to bring the base up.”
“It should be a permanent increase. No doubt in my mind at all,” said Councilmember Christine Minney of San Juan Island, who described the road issues as concerns of public safety and access. “I truly believe that the events of the last year, including road washouts and culvert failures, are going to speak very clearly for themselves when it comes to the decision-making before the people.”
Councilmember Cindy Wolf of Orcas Island agreed that the improvements made possible with the increased funding were important, but questioned the political viability of increasing the levy amount. “I’ve been hearing a lot about the burden of increased property taxes,” she said. “I agree with the assessment of what should happen and what needs to happen [in terms of] fiscal responsibility, but I don’t know how to go to people right now and say that in a way that’s going to be acceptable.”
The Council also discussed the importance of explaining to voters that the increased funding would go first to necessary road repairs, then to marine infrastructure repairs, and only after that point would money be allocated to projects like bicycle-friendly road shoulders and road-separated trails – projects that are popular among both islanders and tourists.
“We’re talking about a balance of deferred maintenance and dreams about what we can do in the future,” Wolf said. “I love the idea of more multimodal [transportation options], but the clarity of what’s to be expected is really important, having just come through a year of disappointing people because trails were promised but not enough money was allocated to them. We need to be a lot more transparent about what this is – hopeful, yes, but with a realistic expectation of what’s going to happen and when.”
According to County Manager Mike Thomas, the Council would need to decide on its approach by sometime next month in order for the proposition to reach the November 8 general election ballot, due to the amount of work required of the County in order to meet the August 2 election filing deadline. If the road levy measure makes it onto the November ballot it would require a simple majority of more than 50 percent of the vote in order to pass.
You can support the San Juan Update by doing business with our loyal advertisers, and by making a one-time contribution or a recurring donation.