Aberdeen City Councilman Jeff Cook doesn’t need to go far from his house to find proof that the City of Aberdeen needs to do a better job improving its streets.
Cook easily points out long cracks and deformed roadbeds up in the Broadway Hill neighborhood.
“It just looks bad and you can really notice it when you’re driving,” Cook says.
Recently retired Public Works Director Larry Bledsoe calls those “crocodile patches.” And, although the city has a fancy spray patcher that can fix pot holes, the only way to really deal with the crocodile patches is to dig up the street and lay new asphalt.
These patches can be found all over the city and would be among the first things to be fixed if residents approve a sales tax increase. Voters have until Tuesday to mail their ballots in. Or, they can save a stamp and drop ballots off at either the Auditor’s Office in Montesano or at the drive-up ballot box at the Grays Harbor YMCA in Hoquiam.
Thus far, County Auditor Vern Spatz says fewer than 3,000 valid ballots out of more than 11,800 sent have come back for the February election, which also includes a ladder truck measure for Hoquiam.
The Aberdeen City Council is asking voters to consider a sales tax increase of 0.13 percent with the hope of generating between $500,000 and $600,000 annually, specifically tagged for roads. All of Grays Harbor has an 8.4 percent sales tax rate, and the proposal would bring the rate within the city to 8.53 percent. Aberdeen would be the highest on the Harbor, although still less than the 8.7 percent rate in the Olympia area.
Walk a few blocks farther away from Cook’s home and the picture is even worse. On the corner of L Street and West Market, the road is so bad that the ground has risen up to create what looks like a speed bump. When cars go over it, the sound of the metal hitting the pavement can be heard as they bottom out.
“Market Street is one of the first roads that would need to get a new pavement overlay,” Cook said. “It’s just awful.”
Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson points out that if a resident were to purchase a $100 item within the city limits, it would cost an additional 13 cents and most grocery items are already tax exempt. “What I like about the proposal is it affects everybody — not just residents of the city, but those who shop here from out of town and tourists driving through,” Simpson said.
An information sheet provided by the city notes there are 98 miles of streets within the city limits, with 66 percent of those streets considered residential. The money would be used for residential street repair and resurfacing throughout the city.
“Currently, the only dedicated funding source for streets is the motor vehicle excise tax that is paid by the consumer at the gas pump,” the fact sheet states. “The source of funding only covers 17 percent of the operational costs to maintain streets. Not enough money is available for capital improvements.”
In 2010, the state Department of Transportation did an assessment of the city’s surfaced streets. The state found that of the 20.9 miles of arterial and collector streets, 35.6 percent had a surface condition rated as either poor or worse. Those streets need to be replaced. An additional 20 percent were rated as fair and would be a candidate for overlay paving.
Last year, former county commissioner Mike Wilson helped the city secure funding from the state Transportation Improvement Board to do paving work on State Street and Myrtle Street, but those were only one-time funds.
“Besides those grounds, we only have $20,000 budgeted to take care of our streets,” Cook said. “That’s nothing.”
PROS AND CONS
City Councilwoman Alice Phelps says she’s not a fan of the sales tax increase. She believes the city ought to re-prioritize its spending to include more funds for street repairs. Phelps says the city has always been able to fund street repairs before, so why not now?
Rich Hartman, who owns Five Star Dealerships in Aberdeen, testified against the proposed sales tax increase last year when the council first started to consider it, saying there’s already an additional three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax on car sales and it would put him at a disadvantage to other car dealerships in the county. Hartman didn’t return a message seeking comment on Thursday.
But Simpson points out that these are extraordinary times and funding for street repairs has been cut over the years to pay for basic services. If the city were to divert more funds for paving projects, that means the money would have to come from some place when residents have demanded that parks stay open and fire and police service also remain a priority.
“It’s not like we have a money tree,” Simpson said.
Besides a sales tax increase, the Aberdeen City Council could move forward with increasing the cost of vehicle license tabs by an extra $20 to generate more money for street repairs. State law on Transportation Benefit Districts — which the Aberdeen City Council created late last year to deal with the roads issue — allows such a move to happen without a public vote, although City Attorney Eric Nelson says that a public hearing would still need to be conducted. Councilman Tim Alstrom says he’s not a fan of that approach, noting that increasing the cost of tabs doesn’t generate the money the city needs and takes away the voice of the people.
“We need at least half a million dollars extra a year to make headway on street improvements,” Alstrom said. Alstrom also points out that no Transportation Benefit District in the state has been able to get voter approval for car tabs over the $20 amount, however, there are multiple examples of voters approving sales tax increases.
The Aberdeen City Council also rejected earlier ideas to increase utility rates to pay more for roads, noting that the city was already increasing utility rates to pay for other things, such as emergency medical services.