Grab your wallets, folks, your county commissioners are about to put their grubby hands on them. Again.
For what cause, you might ask? Well, it seems that over the past decade and more, while county folks have been bragging about, with great difficulty and terrible sacrifice, balancing our county budgets, they forgot to tell us they did it partly by ignoring spending critically needed to resurface roads. So now they tell us, because we’ve ignored roads for so many years, we need over $4 million or more per year additional revenue to bring them up to the condition they should be in. Starting now! Accumulated road repair deficit is advised as $9 million. The county manager appointed a citizens task force to determine alternatives for where to get the money. In a recent commissioner meeting the Public Utilities Director formally requested the $4 million annually, as proposed by the task force.
What happens if we don’t want new taxes? Because many roads are now at a critical stage of deterioration, we’re told if they don’t treat the surfaces urgently they will require rebuilding instead of resurfacing at a cost several times greater. Alternatively we can just fill potholes as they occur, and live with mere cracks.
How did we arrive at this pickle, considering the county often receives awards for their budgets?
First of all, when commissioners rubber-stamp new developments they agree that roads built to county standards by developers will be accepted by the county for maintaining. Without any calculation of what taxes will pay for that – perhaps expecting manna from heaven. Heck, at the time that’s way out in the future, right? So why not kick the can down the road?
Then, there’s the budgets. At budget review meetings I’ve attended over many years, when commissioners who we elect to oversee county operations get to the “small “ funds like the three road repair funds they usually rubber-stamp them in groups without comment. County management for its part simply budgets to spend whatever revenue, mainly gas taxes, is available in those funds, never pointing out in budget meetings their critical road repair shortage. True, budget books are well-compiled and very informative about county operations. Clearly, the award-givers are not aware the budgets for many years omitted millions in road maintenance shortfalls. That they balance is the main thing. County management back in 2000 and again in 2003 must have noted the problem, because they authorized $5 million in transportation bonds. We’re still paying them off at around $200,000 a year.
County staff do make a carefully prepared annual presentation of a 5-year transportation spending plan. Commissioners usually just accept it with little if any deliberation. After all, if they spend a lot of time discussing needs like roads, they could be late for dinner, and they try to reserve that occasion for developers. So somehow road repair needs never did progress into the budgets and actual spending. Until citizens declared roads a priority in a new survey for priority-based budgeting last year, after which county management finally noticed roads are deteriorating without sufficient funds to fix them. Let’s hear it for unelected citizen advisers.
The county updates each year a 5-year Capital Improvement Plan, which surely would have shown the spending needed to resurface roads, no? Well, yes and no. It provides only half of the $4 million now needed, and did propose rebuilding Waterloo. Apparently nobody knew the critical road needs before the county’s survey of citizen priorities. Even though CIP Policy #3 specifically requires capital project maintenance needs to be included. Commissioners usually Just approve the CIP without comment. Too big to read.
We’re lucky that most of our thoroughfares are state or federal highways funded by NDOT, and many other heavily traveled roads belong to and are maintained by the Towns and General Improvement Districts. Most county roads serve residential areas built by developers and dedicated to the county during the construction boom, and so are not so very old, hence just now starting to reach critical disrepair. Some like East Valley and Waterloo should not have been ignored so long.
A side effect of not budgeting the money so desperately needed for road maintenance each year, even though it would put the budget into deficit, has been that county employee unions could see revenues and spending in balance, so in contract negotiations could insist on having their share of future revenues. As a result, general fund compensation costs per employee increased 50 percent during the eight years from 1999 to 2007. While road repairs languished. County commissions and management might have changed during those years, but letting tax revenue needed for roads get swallowed up by county unions did not.
To his credit, our current county manager made commissioners aware of the roads crisis, and appointed a public advisory committee to determine funding resources. At a town hall meeting at CVIC hall, all of six of an apathetic 40,000 or so Valley residents showed up to hear that the likely outcome would be new taxes. And so we shall pay.
Jack Van Dien is a Gardnerville resident.