County Council discusses ballot measure that would permanently increase road levy

Posted May 9, 2022 at 12:14 pm by

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.

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Categories: Around Here


  1. “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 –“

    This is a good approach. We don’t want to become like many cities that pri­or­i­tize noble, but often lofty alter­na­tive projects, while let­ting the cur­rent and most pop­u­lar infra­struc­ture suffer.

    Comment by Dave on May 9, 2022 at 12:56 pm
  2. Not only has the pop­u­la­tion increased since the 1970’s but I wager the amount of tourist traf­fic has also increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Per­haps we should also con­sid­er a means of pass­ing some of the bur­den on to vis­i­tors com­ing to the islands. Their traf­fic also degrades the roads. Some sort of increase in hos­pi­tal­i­ty tax­es direct­ed at hotel, motel, B&B, VRBO, AirBnB, and short term type rentals assessed direct­ly for road main­te­nance, that goes specif­i­cal­ly for that purpose.

    Comment by Jim on May 9, 2022 at 5:10 pm
  3. I think the prop­er­ty tax increase is not in line with the road use. Per­haps we need to increase the gas tax instead of prop­er­ty tax as that aligns bet­ter with wear and tear.

    Comment by Derek Hill on May 11, 2022 at 12:34 pm

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