The Lakewood City Council continues to spin its wheels over asking voters to approve a fee or tax for street maintenance.
Council members have turned their focus to 2014 with time to get the measure on this year’s ballot running out — the deadline to send a measure to the November ballot is Aug. 7 — and as they remain undecided on a specific proposal.
After more than two years of research and discussion, including separate reviews and recommendations by a citizen advisory board and an ad hoc committee of three council members, the full council remains unsure what fee or tax should be levied and what the money should go toward.
Council members are now banking on a community survey that could go out as early as August to help provide them with some direction on shaping the measure.
City officials have said they need $5 million a year over the next six years to keep streets in their current condition. Delaying that maintenance will cost the city more in the long run, they say, because water in cracked asphalt will eventually compromise the roadbed and require more expensive repair work, for instance. Last year, the city budgeted $500,000 for paving associated with grant-funded street improvement projects and $100,000 for minor street repairs.
The council has been looking at a transportation benefit district as the vehicle to raise the revenue they say is needed. The districts are an independent taxing authority used to fund road projects. They typically add $20 to the annual vehicle registration fee, which doesn’t require voter approval, and they can charge up to a $100 fee with voter approval. The council formed the district in August 2012 but it assesses no tax or fee.
Council members have repeatedly pledged that voters will decide whether the district assesses a tax or fee. The council had floated at one time asking voters to increase their property taxes 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to generate an estimated $1.8 million a year.
The city operates and maintains more than $250 million in street-related infrastructure, including roads, bridges and culverts, sidewalks and street lights.
The city’s two-year spending plan created a separate fund for the district that budgeted $350,000, or six months of revenue, in 2013, and another $700,000 for all of 2014.
Officials also are weighing adding sidewalk and other street-related projects in neighborhoods to garner more public support. Councilman Jason Whalen said the approach could ”make an overall funding package more sellable” to voters.
But Councilwoman Helen McGovern-Pilant cautioned against making promises to voters that the city may not be able to afford.
“There’s not going to be enough money in there to construct bike paths all over the city,” she warned.
The city is proposing to add questions about street funding to a survey that explores public interest in options to raise money to pay for park and recreation projects identified in a 20-year plan. The draft questions ask residents to rate the condition of Lakewood streets, sidewalks and street lights and options for paying for their maintenance and repair, such as a property or sale tax increase or license tab fee. It also would ask residents to rate curbs and sidewalks on local streets and options for paying for their improvement.
Councilwoman Mary Moss said a measure will be a tough sell for voters because Lakewood streets are in fairly good shape now.
“Until they can fall in the hole, they’re not going to see” the long-term need for money to maintain the street, she said.
McGovern-Pilant, who will leave office at the end of the year, said the council should cut to the chase and approve the $20 fee without going to voters. Whalen and Mayor Don Anderson expressed a willingness to do that if voters rejected the measure the council finally agrees on.
One reason the council decided against a utility tax increase during last year’s budget negotiations was to keep from angering voters prior to presenting them with a tax measure for street funding.
That decision continues to reverberate around City Hall because the council instead chose to reduce health care costs for city employees to help balance the budget instead.
Its decision threw a wrench in negotiations with the city’s now four labor unions. They got further complicated with the departure of former City Manager Andrew Neiditz and Assistant City Manager Choi Halladay, who was serving as the city’s chief negotiator. Incoming city manager John Caulfield will succeed Neiditz on Sept. 3.
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