County hosts local roads workshop
On Jan. 23, county commissioners will hold a workshop on how to fund the maintenance of unincorporated local roads. As a member of the County’s Road Maintenance Funding Task Force I have some thoughts about what Commissioners should consider.
1. The county maintained road system consists of regional roads and unincorporated local roads.
2. The county has adopted a policy of using regional revenue (that paid by all county residents) for regional roads and local revenue (that paid by residents in just a portion of the county) for local roads.
3. That policy is exemplified by the use of the recently added 5-cent gas tax, a regional tax, for the ongoing repair of regional roads. And by the use of local taxes paid by residents of our towns and GIDs to maintain their local roads.
4. With the increased gas tax our regional roads are being brought up to good repair. And local roads in our towns and GIDs are generally already in good repair. That leaves unincorporated local roads, those outside our towns and GIDs, as our chief maintenance headache.
5. The problem with unincorporated local roads is that there is no dedicated source of funds for their maintenance, as there is for other roads. Roads are, or will soon be, in good repair where residents pay for such repairs (regional roads, and local roads in the towns and GIDs). Roads are in poor repair where residents do not pay for road maintenance (unincorporated local roads).
6. If the county uses regional revenue to maintain unincorporated local roads, that amounts to a subsidy of unincorporated residents by those in the towns and GIDs, whereby those who already pay for local road maintenance pay more for those who don’t.
Roughly two-thirds of county residents reside in our towns and GIDs, one-third in the unincorporated area. So approximately two-thirds of our regional, countywide taxes are paid by residents of the towns and GIDs, one-third by those in the unincorporated area. When those funds are used for unincorporated local road maintenance, two-thirds of the cost is borne by those in the towns and GIDs.
7. It is wrong to say that the county does not maintain unincorporated local roads. There are two types of maintenance, routine maintenance and preventive maintenance. Routine maintenance includes such things as striping, signage and patching designed to keep roads safe and passable thus protecting the county from liability claims. Preventive maintenance includes such things as crack sealing, pavement overlays and road reconstruction designed to extend the life of the road. The County does perform routine maintenance on unincorporated local roads, but it does not have the resources to perform preventive maintenance on those roads.
8. The Task Force on which I served recommended what amounts to an unincorporated local roads tax to bring unincorporated taxation up to parity with the rest of the county and dedicate the resulting revenue to preventive maintenance on unincorporated local roads.
Opponents of an unincorporated local roads tax say it is divisive, pitting one area against another, that those in the towns and GIDs should be happy to help their neighbors. What is actually divisive is asking the two-thirds of residents who already pay to maintain their local roads to pay more for those who don’t.
9. I would not be opposed to providing temporary assistance from regional revenues to reduce the backlog of unincorporated local road maintenance, but that should be contingent upon unincorporated residents first being brought up to tax parity with those in the towns and GIDs, with the proceeds dedicated to unincorporated local road maintenance. God helps those who help themselves.
10. Some say we should find the funds for unincorporated local road maintenance by cutting budgets for other functions, which are mostly regional in nature. That would be contrary to the County policy in 2 above. We’d be cutting programs funded by regional taxes, with broad regional benefits, to fund local road maintenance in just a portion of the county. And we’d again have a subsidy, with those who already pay paying more for those who don’t.
11. Worse yet would be the misguided notion of taking funds from the towns and GIDs to fund maintenance of unincorporated local roads, spreading the problem of inadequate funding from the unincorporated area into our towns and GIDs. And again causing those who already pay to subsidize those who don’t.
It seems obvious that the first step toward solving our unincorporated local road maintenance problem is for unincorporated residents to step up to the plate and help pay for what they want by being brought up to tax parity with the rest of the county.
Unincorporated residents must decide which is more important to them, tax avoidance or better roads. If they prefer tax avoidance, fine, their roads will continue to decline. But their refusal to pay is no reason to ask those who already pay, to pay more.
I hope unincorporated residents will go to the Jan. 23 workshop and tell Commissioners that you want better local roads and are willing to pay for them, just as those in our towns and GIDs already do. And I hope the latter will go and tell Commissioners that you already pay for local road maintenance and aren’t interested in paying more for those who don’t.
I believe that combination would turn this discussion on its head, taking it from endless complaining about what isn’t being done, to planning what can and should be done.
We had a similar history of complaining about regional roads, a discussion that went nowhere due to a lack of resources. But then our previous Board took the bull by the horns and passed the five cent gas tax. And now we have an improved Jacks Valley Road and more improved regional roads to come.
There’s no free lunch. Want your unincorporated local roads fixed? Pay for them. Or be content just to keep complaining, with no results.
Terry Burnes is a retired Bay Area planner and Gardnerville resident.