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Potholes vs. Politics

Author: Bonnie Durrance
August, 2015 Issue

The roads are in need. So why did we vote against fixing them?

 

The resounding defeat in June of Measure A, which asked Sonoma County voters for a general, quarter-cent sales tax generally aimed at fixing the county’s sub-standard, progressively degrading, pothole-riddled roads, puzzled supporters. If the roads are so bad, why would this tax—which would amount to $0.10 on a $40 purchase and would mean so much to anyone having to drive home on Sonoma County roads—have been so decisively rejected? Did people not think the roads needed fixing? Did people not think the money would go to fixing roads? Did people really think the local government already has enough money? Did people simply not believe in taxation? Was it all, or none of these answers?
 

How bad are the roads?

A Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) report released April 13, 2015, rated the pavement condition index (PCI) of roads throughout the Bay Area. In the report, PCI scores are based on a perfect 100, with scores of 75 or better being desirable, 90 considered “excellent,” roadways with PCI scores of 50 to 59 deemed “at-risk” and those with PCI scores of 25 to 49 considered “poor.” Roads in unincorporated Sonoma County received a rating of 45. (For comparison with other local areas, you can see the full listing on the MTC website: http://www.mtc.ca.gov/news/street_fight/pci_2014.htm.)
 
What does a PCI 45-rated road system look like? “They’re pie crust,” says Sebastopol well-driller Eugene Boudreau, who compares U.S. roads unfavorably to the roads in France, which are built to last, and a pleasure to drive—not like here: “Here, they fall apart!”
 
“Our roads are a disaster,” agrees Sonoma County resident Molly Detwiler. “My street, for example, is like driving on a washboard. It’s embarrassing for such a beautiful, prosperous place to have such terrible roads.”
 
Joanne Sanders, former mayor of the city of Sonoma, thought the county roads were so bad that, when she was running for supervisor in 2012, she made a campaign video showing a disintegrating Sonoma County road that, “when you crossed over into Napa, the pavement became suddenly smooth—it was like going from rags to riches.”
 
It’s still that way: Think of traveling Trinity Road over the mountain to Oakville, or Spring Mountain Road into St. Helena.
 

How did it get this bad?

“People always say to me, ‘I pay my taxes, why are my roads so lousy?’” says Second District Supervisor David Rabbitt, who lobbied hard to get Measure A passed. “And I totally understand.”
 
He tries to explain that, over the years, the gas tax structure hasn’t kept up with the ever-increasing costs of delayed maintenance. He says the gas tax, which has remained the same for the last 22 years despite increasing costs, is now worth about half of what it once was. “The state gas tax that we pay goes to Sacramento,” he says. “The state keeps 56 percent, and 44 percent gets distributed back to cities and counties. The cities get their money on a per capita basis and the counties get theirs based on a formula that was set long ago.”
 
Sonoma County, having grown to a half-million people with 1,384.6 miles of roads, doesn’t receive an adequate share of the gas tax revenues to maintain them. “I don’t think people really understand that counties have a larger population, but less road miles are getting a bigger share of the gas tax revenues,” he says. So, unlike counties where the tax covers the road maintenance, Sonoma County has to dip into the already-stretched General Fund to repair roads. “And that’s how we got to where we are now.”
 
For him, Measure A, which would have brought in $20 million per year, was just the boon the county needed to start getting caught up with road maintenance to prevent further costs and strain on vehicles, property values and residents’ patience. The Board of Supervisors enlisted a poll, which indicated a positive outcome—for a general tax, which needed a simple majority, but not a specific tax, which would require the elusive two-thirds majority. In hindsight, it would raise other issues than the quality of roads: “Certainly people talked a lot about trust after the fact,” says Rabbitt. “And there’s an anti-tax issue. There’s a feeling that government has enough money; it’s just spending it in the wrong arenas.”Still, balancing the need versus the cost, the measure seemed good to pass.
 

SOSroads fought for Measure A

“Sonoma County roads are the worst in the state,” says Craig Harrison, cofounder (with Michael Troy in 2011) of Save Our Sonoma Roads (SOSroads), a grassroots organization made up of individuals, most of whom live on or regularly travel on “lousy county roads.” The organization works for better roads through education, public outreach and a sense of urgency.
 
“We advocate for improved roads from the perspective of the user,” he explains, adding that Sonoma County roads are, “among the worst in the state. Most road improvement groups are comprised of groups that make a living by fixing roads. Not us; we’re the users.”
 
That said, SOSroads formed a coalition with contractors, operating engineers, materials suppliers and others to support Measure A. To further help Measure A pass, SOSroads supporters contributed significantly.
 
In May, the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, which opposed Measure A, listed on its website Measure A supporters’ names and contributions, totaling $150,000. Harrison, who himself is a member of the Taxpayers Association, but who “agreed to disagree” with its stand, worked with county supervisors and fought hard for Measure A—even with reservations about the way the measure was ultimately worded—to get it passed. Despite these efforts, voters chose not to support the measure.
 
So why did Measure A get voted down? “The biggest surprise to me was how badly it failed,” says Harrison. “We thought from the beginning that it was weird we’d have to form an organization to support basic infrastructure. We thought that core responsibility was what government did without being prompted. But people are lobbying the government to do innumerable other things these days, so it neglects the roads. I think that’s what’s going on.”
 
In other words, it seems road improvement may be in competition with social services. “This is a very, let’s say, ‘progressive’ county,” Harrison continues, “and there’s nothing under the sun residents don’t think the government should help out with. And I think, while those causes are often noble and nice—if you have the money—the county has neglected the infrastructure by doing a lot of other things.”
 
Another example shows how the set of choices the supervisors face is truly sticky. “They want to help the homeless,” he says. “Well, fine. Nobody wants to see people living out on the street; but what can a county do? Let’s say we put up a lot of money and make it real easy for the homeless to get houses here. What’s that going to do? Have people from San Francisco and Oakland move up here? So we should give up good road systems to pay for that?”
 
After months—and years—of work to secure the roads of Sonoma County, his frustration is palpable. “These are questions that are never discussed openly because, frankly, you look like a knuckle-dragging troglodyte to say you don’t think we should help out the homeless, but at what cost?”
 

Philosophical and communication divide

“I think one of the problems with Measure A is the trust issue,” says Dan Drummond, executive director of Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. “Measure A was put on the ballot as a special election. But the Board of Supervisors can’t willy-nilly put a ballot measure on as a special election. They have to demonstrate there’s a financial crisis or fiscal emergency.” (See “A Trust Issue,” below, for more.)
 
For him, the problem was that the supervisors presented this as a tax that would be used for roads—even though they wouldn’t be required to. “On the one hand, they’re saying it’s a general purpose tax and, on the other hand, they’re saying it’s a roads tax. It can’t be both.”
 
It was, perhaps, this dichotomy that led (in part) to its defeat. Another obstacle was the election’s timing.
 
Detwiler, for example, is a faithful voter who says that, had she read up on the measure and remembered to vote, she would have likely voted in favor. But, “Special elections are tough,” she says. “It probably would have been better—not to mention more cost-effective—to include it, or something similar, in a regular election cycle. I hope they will in the future. Everyone always complains, but the only way to fix the infrastructure is to fund it, and the only way to fund it is to pony up!”
 
“Voters have to be more aware, more engaged and knowledgeable about what’s going on,” says Drummond. “Voters need to be actively engaged in the process.”
 

Lessons learned

“We can’t do much about what happened in the past, all we can do is look forward, from here on out,” says Rabbitt. “How we leave our infrastructure for the next generation is, to me, our responsibility.”
 
He acknowledges the abiding anti-tax sentiment, but balances that against the real and increasing need. “I’m not a tax-and-spend person,” he says, “but I’m willing to do it when I can see the results. And knowing what I do about the dilemma we’re in—the costs that are in front of us and inequities in the funding stream within the state and federal sources—I don’t know what else we can do. We looked at road assessment districts and other ways to raise dollars. We can’t raise the gas tax ourselves, as a county. That’s MTC’s purview. So we have these roadblocks.”
 
The failure of the measure, despite the blatant need and the confidence of the polling numbers still seems baffling. “I never would have pushed it forward had I known it would be defeated the way it was,” Rabbitt acknowledges. “We probably made some faux pas by changing language right before we put it on the ballot, but it was just looked at by another attorney; it wasn’t done by any nefarious intention. All I wanted to do—and all I still want to do—is pave some roads.”
 

Moving on

In June, after the defeat of Measure A, the Board of Supervisors released its Recommended Budget for 2015-2016-2017. In it, the FY 2015-2016 totals $423.4 million, or a $43.9 million (0.9 percent) increase. The document states that this change is “mostly the result of financing the roads infrastructure annual contribution directly from the new discretionary General Fund, moving it from the $3.5 million to a full $9 million annually.” The FY 2016-2017 General Fund budget will see a $5.1 million decrease “due to a one-time transfer to the roads special revenue fund of reinvestment and revitalization funds for the Highway 12 community project.
 
“The General Fund includes expenditures and revenues associated with the delivery of services by county agencies funded mainly with property taxes, sales taxes, fees or charges for services, and available unrestricted fund balance.”
 
So some funding will be found to fix some roads. “The pace will be slower,” says Rabbitt, but he’s optimistic. “This year, the contracts are already out there, for this and next year. We will have paved 198 miles, for $40.8 million, which was prioritized by the same board that people now say they don’t trust. That money could have paid for any other purpose: That’s General Fund dollars, but it was spent on roads. So we’re trying to make a difference and pave as many roads as possible. But it just becomes more difficult as we go—pavement preservation becomes more costly as pavement degrades. But I remain dedicated to this issue as we move ahead.”
 

The Official Description of Measure A and Key Answers from the Board of Supervisors’ FAQ

Measure A, on the ballot, read:
Shall the people of Sonoma County enact a one-quarter percent sales tax for general governmental purposes such as public safety, local roads and pothole repair, senior, student and veterans transit and other essential services within the nine cities and unincorporated area for five years with annual audits made available to the public showing how all revenue was spent the previous year?
 
From the Board of Supervisors’ Measure A FAQ
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ answers to questions raised in this article, taken from http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/CAO/Meausre-A/FAQs:
 
How can you trust the money raised by a general tax will go where they say they intended?
Maintaining and improving roads is one of the top priorities for the Board of Supervisors, as shown by the recent adoption of the Long-Term Roads Plan. However, because this is a general tax, there is no legal requirement for the board to allocate the funds to roads. Each year, the use of the money will be tracked and audited, and the records will be publicly available for voters to review. This tax must be re-approved by voters in five years.
 
On the one hand, it’s a “general purpose” tax and, on the other hand, it’s a “roads” tax; it can’t be both.
A special tax limits the use of the funds to specific projects described in the ballot measure, while a general tax allows the funding to be dedicated toward all aspects of the Long-Term Roads Plan. The county understands that a general tax has no legal restriction on the use of the revenue, which is why the board has committed to complete transparency through annual audits for the use of these funds.
 
The board has expressed an interest in allocating about 10 percent of Measure A funds toward public transit. Communities have asked that students and veterans have access to free public transit, and that there be good connectivity between Sonoma County transit and SMART train service. This money could be spent toward those goals.
 

A Trust Issue

According to Dan Drummond, executive director of Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, the defeat of Measure A may have had more to do with the changing role of government than it did with the roads themselves.
 
“As the recent budget process demonstrated, there’s a real interest on the part of supervisors to expand the traditional role of government into social services at the expense of core government functions,” he says. “Things like arts centers, immigration lawyers for undocumented residents, living wages and preschool programs all expand the traditional role of government beyond the core functions of roads, water and sanitation. I’m not saying that’s bad—in fact, it may be good—but it comes at a cost, and the supervisors need to be honest with the electorate about where the money is coming from.
 
“If the supervisors want to divert money from roads and put it into safety net programs, they need to be up front and say that’s what they’re doing. It’s a major policy shift and voters need to know it. Perhaps they’ll approve it, perhaps not.”
 
Beyond that, he continues, was the question of the declared “fiscal emergency” that led to the special election timing. “Measure A was classified as a general purpose tax. It wasn’t just for roads,” he says, “so the 'fiscal emergency' was for the general budget.”
 
He deems this classification suspect, explaining, “The supervisors needed to find the existence of a fiscal emergency before they can hold a special election. But it’s curious to note that the ‘fiscal emergency’ that was deemed important enough to waste $450,000 of taxpayer money on a special election was of no concern when the supervisors approved the living wage and embarked upon an expensive preschool program—hardly the type of actions one would expect during a true fiscal emergency.
 
“Declaring a fiscal emergency should be a big deal, not something done casually for purposes of satisfying requirements of the Elections Code,” he says.

 

 

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