|County survey: Fix roads; don’t make me pay
More than 600 Sonoma County residents responded to the Save Our Sonoma Roads (SOSroads.org) online survey and provided their opinions on the solutions proposed by the county supervisors and several suggestions by SOSroads.
Sonoma County supervisors have been evaluating several taxes and other measures to expand the number of roads to be maintained in good condition. In this fiscal year, the supervisors authorized a one-time expenditure of $6.5 million to improve an additional 13.2 miles of roads (about $500,000 per mile).
They also authorized another $1.5 million for public safety and other programs, including a community partnership program in which residents would pay for road repairs.
Nearly all respondents believe roads are an essential county responsibility (94 percent) and that their current condition is bad-to-terrible (81 percent). This implies that Sonoma County is failing to provide this essential responsibility. Many (42 percent) attribute bad roads as a cause of damage to their vehicles.
Nearly all respondents (93 percent) support the preparation of a comprehensive plan for how the road system will be fixed including identifying which roads will not be repaired.
Most respondents believe the county should increase road funding to the level that existed in 2001, which was 9 percent of the property tax revenue that is available to the county.
In 2011, the county committed only 3 percent of this revenue to roads. In contrast, pensions cost the county 94 percent of county property tax revenue in 2011.
The 2011 county pension obligation of $166.2 million consisted of a combination of cash contributions ($61.4 million) plus an increase to unfunded obligations of $104.8 million. While only one-third of respondents support new taxes to fix roads in principle, support was much higher for specific taxes.
These taxes include extending the Measure M 1⁄4-cent sales tax (67 percent approved), increasing the tourist occupancy (63 percent approved) or a new $20 vehicle registration fee (57 percent approved).
However, assessing parcel owners for road maintenance taxes of $300-500 garnered only 29 percent approval (69 percent opposed this).
All three tax increases would require a two-third majority vote, and if approved would collectively add about $7.3 million annually for road maintenance (improving approximately 15 miles of additional roads per year).
Extension of Measure M, which was used to fund the U.S. 101 expansion to three lanes in Sonoma County, is probably most likely to succeed. However, the current Measure M does not expire for another 12 years.
This tax would only provide about $4 million more for county roads after 2025, improving an additional 8 miles per year.
The hotel tax increase is also favored, probably because residents won’t pay it. This tax increase would raise only about $2.5 million. The vehicle fee of $20 was the least favored and would raise only $2.8 million per year. Combined, these two added taxes might allow an additional 10 miles of improved roads each year.
Summary of survey results
• 94 percent believe roads are an essential service of county government.
• 93 percent think supervisors should prepare a detailed plan to improve the road system.
• 81 percent think Sonoma County roads are bad or terrible.
• 42 percent believe bad roads damaged their vehicles.
• 86 percent support returning to spending 9 percent of property taxes available to the county on roads from the current 3 percent.
• 59 percent in principle want to reduce county spending while only 37 percent in principle support new revenue.
• 51 percent support reducing the county workforce by 5 percent.
• 56 percent support cutting overall county spending.
• 67 percent support extending Measure M (1⁄4 cent sales tax) and allocating it to local roads.
• 57 percent support a $20 annual vehicle tax.
• 63 percent support increasing the tourist occupancy (hotel) tax from 9 percent to 12 percent.
• 28 percent approve of parcel taxes for $300-500 road maintenance districts.
This survey shows Sonoma County residents believe county government needs to repair roads and are willing to pay for it.
However, the public also believes even more strongly the county should use existing general fund revenue to bring road maintenance back to prior levels, whether accomplished by payroll/pension reductions or cuts to overall county spending.
Efforts to raise additional funds will likely fail if the public lacks confidence the board of supervisors is serious about addressing the roads crisis. SOSroads believes a long-term plan together with a firm commitment to devote substantial general funds to road repair and maintenance will help earn the needed confidence.