Road maintenance and the funding for it in Douglas County are surprisingly complex topics. But after studying them over many months, the County Road Funding Task Force came to a fairly simple conclusion:
Use regional taxes to maintain the regional system of collector roads, and local taxes to maintain local roads. Redirect existing revenues to adequately fund the maintenance of regional roads. Ask the one-third of county residents who don’t currently do so to pay the cost of maintaining their local roads.
With that, the funding problem would largely be solved. On March 6, the County Commission endorsed the first two points, but deferred action on the third pending further discussion.
Let’s review some facts that will help you better understand the situation.
There are 795 miles of roads in Douglas County. About 177 of those have never been accepted for maintenance by a public agency. That leaves 618 miles of maintained roads.
Of those, NDOT maintains about 102 miles and the towns, general improvement districts (GIDs) and some homeowner associations (HOAs) maintain about 284 miles. That leaves about 232 miles that are maintained by Douglas County.
Of the county roads, 60 miles are gravel or “grindings” roads, not really at issue here. That leaves about 172 miles of paved roads maintained by Douglas County.
The county actually maintains two “systems” of roads. Most important are the 62 miles of regional collector roads, the ones we all use daily to move from one part of the county to another. The rest, about 110 miles, are local roads that serve only the neighborhood within which they are located.
About two-thirds of us live in a town or a GID. The simple truth, and the critical fact when it comes to funding road maintenance, is that if you’re in that group then you pay to maintain roads twice. If you live outside a town or GID you pay only once.
We all pay countywide taxes at the same rate to maintain the regional system of collector roads. If you live in most towns or GIDs (or some HOAs) you also pay taxes (or fees) to that entity to maintain the local roads within its boundaries.
But if you live outside a town or GID you pay no equivalent tax to maintain your local roads. And you get what you (don’t) pay for. Due to lack of funding the County has done little preventive maintenance of local roads. It has devoted most of the available resources to the regional system of collector roads.
County road maintenance is divided into two categories. Routine maintenance involves pothole patching, sign maintenance, striping, etc. The things needed to maintain roads in minimum safe condition but that don’t really extend the life of the road.
Then there is preventive maintenance, rehabilitation projects designed to extend the life of the road. This is the area where the county has been falling behind. While the regional system of collector roads has gotten some preventive maintenance, it has not been enough. And the county maintained local roads have gotten mostly only routine maintenance.
So how did the funding problem develop? In 1970 the county adopted its first gas tax for road funding and in 1986 increased it to the 4 cents per gallon we collect today. Prior to 1992 the county also dedicated a portion of countywide property taxes to road maintenance.
But in 1992 most of that property tax was shifted back to the general fund to address other priorities. The intent was to replace that lost funding with an increase in the gas tax but that never happened, largely due to taxpayer resistance, and our roads went into decline due to lack of funding.
The current County Commissioners began to redress this situation by once again dedicating a portion of countywide property taxes to road maintenance, over $1 million in 2013. But more is needed. Hence the Road Funding Task Force.
The task force reviewed many options for augmenting road maintenance funding. From the start we agreed that the first priority should be to make the best use of existing tax revenue.
We concluded that sufficient additional annual countywide property tax revenue could be redirected to road maintenance to adequately fund preventive maintenance of the regional collector road system without raising taxes.
As to improved maintenance of local roads outside the towns and GIDs the Task Force proposal is simple. Ask residents in those areas to do what the two-thirds of us who live in the towns and GIDs already do: tax themselves to pay for maintenance of their local roads.
How? By establishing one or more County road maintenance districts that would collect those funds and expend them only for the maintenance of local roads in the areas where they are collected.
But wouldn’t that add more government? Not really. Those districts would be mostly an accounting device to collect and expend those funds. They would be governed by the County Commission and administered by County staff. No new boards, agencies, offices or fleets of vehicles.
Of course, there is much needed discussion ahead, particularly with residents outside the towns and GIDs. Taxes aren’t popular here. Personally, I wouldn’t “force” these new local road taxes on any neighborhood that doesn’t want them. But those neighborhoods need to understand that, absent such funding, their local roads will continue to deteriorate, receiving only routine, not preventive, maintenance. There’s no free lunch.
In the end, the Task Force proposal is simple. Regional countywide taxes for regional collector roads. Local taxes for local roads. If you live in a town, GID or HOA that maintains your local roads, nothing would change. If you don’t, and the County Commission decides to move ahead, your neighborhood may have a decision to make: fund maintenance of your local roads or watch them continue to deteriorate.
Terry Burnes is a retired county land use planner and a member of the Douglas County Road Funding Task Force.