Street levy meeting fails to pack ’em in

Published on Thu, Aug 22, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Street levy meeting fails to pack ’em in

By Meg Olson

At the first community meeting on the proposed street levy, city staff, elected representatives and members of the street committee outnumbered interested Blaine residents almost two to one.

The discussion on the proposed 50-cent per thousand dollars of property value tax hike may have started out small, but not slow. Disgruntled former council members Andy Anderson and David White trotted out a litany of perceived city mismanagement of funds, particularly under former city manager Tony Mortillaro, and suggested the city look to its own pockets rather than those of taxpayers. “I suggest you take a five percent cut on your budget. Council can cut their salaries. You never mentioned any of that stuff,” Anderson said. “You need to make some cuts and that’s your job.”

City manager Gary Tomsic said that mining the general fund for the extra $240,000 needed to adequately maintain streets the city has been busy upgrading since 1996 would hurt citizens. “In doing that we would have other impacts that would not be acceptable to people in Blaine – cuts in public safety, in fire protection,” he said. “We want to grow but we can’t. Our revenues aren’t growing and we’ve had to make cuts.” Mayor Dieter Schugt agreed. “We’re tightening the screws everywhere we can,” he said.

Tomsic said the current crunch came from growing costs to maintain streets the city was upgrading through the residential street levy, while revenue sources for the street maintenance fund dwindled. “One of the primary sources of revenue for streets – the gas tax – has dropped $250,000 since 1996,” he said. The one-cent per gallon tax is authorized by the state in towns along the border to reduce the impact of additional traffic on local roads. Another source of revenue to the city’s general fund that has disappeared is the local gambling tax, which collected $239,000 in 1998 but was eliminated by city council that year at the request of local gambling establishments who saw their business dwindling as the Canadian dollar weakened.

Assistant public works director Steve Banham said the 2002 budget for street maintenance, $477,000, could pay for snow removal, mowing, road striping, fixing potholes and minor sidewalk damage and street lighting. It was not enough to resurface old asphalt roads and crack-seal new ones. “If moisture gets into the roadbed it can degrade it. If you don’t crack-seal you end up having to tear the whole thing up and start over.

The idea here is to protect that investment.” Blaine has 23 miles of asphalt roads and 11 miles of chipsealed roads, plus a few old concrete roads. Banham said the average life expectancy of an asphalt road is 18 years, less for a busy road. A third of Blaine’s asphalt streets are older than that. The city would use 88 percent of the funds generated by the levy for new asphalt overlays, which cost about $130,000 per mile.

A citizen’s advisory group looked at the shortfall in road maintenance funds and the proposed levy was their top recommendation. “This method of funding had some favor because it allowed the citizens to make the decision themselves,” Tomsic said. The levy would raise approximately $200,000 dollars annually, and an additional $34,000 would be generated by putting the financial responsibility for street lighting on the electric utility. A one percent franchise fee for cable utilities would drum up another $8,000. “That was the game plan council put together,” Banham said. The levy would run for four years, until the residential street levy runs out in 2006, he said. At that time a levy to combine both street construction and maintenance would be considered.

The proposed levy will be on the ballot September 17, and the city plans two more neighborhood meetings and one council meeting to educate the public about the proposal. There is a neighborhood meeting August 22 at the Semiahmoo fire station and another August 29 at the Blaine community center. There will also be a presentation at the September 9 city council meeting. “We’d like to get a lot of people to those meetings so they understand the issues,” Banham said.

Streets committee member Jan Hansen said she understood what was at stake, and knew she needed to vote for the levy, but that didn’t mean she liked it. She likened it to a recent visit to her dentist and the news she would need two new crowns. “That won’t cost me $50 a year like this levy, it means missing a holiday. I don’t want to pay it but I want to continue to chew. I’ll pay for the routine maintenance because I don’t like the alternative. That’s how I feel about the streets.”

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