If Spokane’s washboard streets aren’t jolting enough, just take a look at the repair bill.
On Sept. 17, city residents will be asked to approve a $37.3 million bond issue to repave about 46 arterial miles and four residential miles of rutted streets.
The bond would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $630 over seven years.
City officials say they’re desperate. State and federal money they relied on to pay for resurfacing have vanished. New dollars they hoped for never materialized.
“We’ve run out of options,” says Phil Williams, director of city planning and engineering. “The only (remaining option) - largely supported in the past - has been a bond issue.”
While city leaders plead for taxpayers’ help, taxpayers may wonder why such a basic service as road maintenance should require a voter bailout.
“Concerned voters say, ‘No property taxes for neglected streets,”’ says Jonathan Swanstrom, arguing Spokane’s 822 miles of streets began to deteriorate long before city officials began to panic.
Swanstrom, along with city spending critic Dick Adams, started the “Naysayers” campaign last week to oppose the bond issue.
Streets have been “ignored for a long time,” admits Irv Reed, recently retired from the job Williams now holds. “It didn’t get that way overnight. There’s been such a high priority on police and fire. …
“They get the funding, and the streets get the short end.”
Acting City Manager Bill Pupo argues that streets aren’t a low priority. More than 50 percent of the city’s budget goes to police and fire. Transportation, parks and libraries make up the next 25 percent.
“We stretch that (street repair) dollar as far as it can go,” Pupo says. “What you’re talking about is extraordinary repairs to the streets that can’t be done with the existing repair budget.”
Pupo says he doesn’t know how the city will pay for the repairs if the bond fails. Even if the state Legislature comes up with a steady funding source for preventative street maintenance, Spokane’s streets need a quick infusion of money to catch up after years of deterioration.
“We’ll have to restrategize,” he says.
The city transportation department’s $11.4 million annual spending plan has no room for resurfacing money, Reed says.
A third of the department’s budget comes from the city’s general fund, another third from the state gas tax and the rest from parking meters and contract work.
About $3.5 million is spent on maintenance such as patching and potholes, $1.8 million for street cleaning, $1.1 million for ice and snow removal, and $1 million for traffic signals. The rest goes for signs, parking meters and bridges.
Reed says he spent 15 years begging the City Council for more money for road upkeep. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as police and fire spending grew, general fund money stayed fairly flat - about $2 million a year.
“The transportation budget did stay flat,” says Councilman Orville Barnes, adding the only spending increase went to pay for federally mandated street cleaning to decrease air pollution. “We shifted emphasis to police.”
Streets lost out, Barnes says. “It’s going to naturally happen without even realizing what you’ve done to yourself.”
Reed says he relied on federal and state money to make up the difference as costs increased. “Those sources have dried up.”
Other ways to pay for street upkeep - a local gas tax and an added motor vehicle fee - were shot down by voters and county commissioners.
The shrinking state gas tax revenues made the situation even worse, says Ken Stone, the city’s budget manager.
The state tacks a 23-cent tax onto each gallon sold. It’s a flat tax that doesn’t rise or fall as the price fluctuates.
The state divides gas tax revenue into three pots: one for itself, one for counties and one for cities. The size of the pots has barely changed over the years, but for cities there’s a catch. With at least five new cities forming in the past few years, Spokane’s share keeps getting smaller.
In fact, last year the city got less in gas-tax revenues than it did five years ago, down to $2.90 million in 1995 from $2.96 million in 1991.
Washington counties have a far easier time generating money for street upkeep than cities, city officials say. State law gives counties a road levy - $2.50 for every $1,000 of assessed valuation from residents living in unincorporated areas.
The city’s remaining hope - a street tax added to utility bills - died last year when the state Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional.
A $15 million street bond won voter approval in 1987. At the time, the city promised to repave 135 miles of streets, but actually repaved 141.
While the money is gone, residents have one more year to pay on the 1987 bond that costs the owner of a $100,000 home about $29 a year.
This time around, the city isn’t guaranteeing how many miles will get a face-lift.
Nearly 70 arterial miles need repairs, Williams says, adding he hopes to resurface at least 46 of those miles along with about five miles of residential streets.
How far the money stretches depends on the condition of the street once repair begins. Chances are, the city will find that some proposed arterials need to be reconstructed, not just repaved, he says.
“We’re trying to play catch-up here,” Williams says.
Dale Stedman, coordinator of the “Yes! For Better Streets” campaign, says voters must decide to pay the repair bill now or pay a lot higher one later.
“If we take responsibility now, we will salvage many miles of Spokane’s arterials,” Stedman says. “If we ignore it, let them break up more, the costs will multiply.
“We want to attack our problem while we can still afford to.”
John Talbott, a former City Council candidate, says he wouldn’t oppose the bond if it weren’t for his concerns about how city officials spend money.
“Why should I trust them with big dollars when they waste little dollars?” Talbott says.
For Reed, the answer is simple.
“Everyone ignores streets until they cause you to bump,” he says. “It’s our responsibility, as citizens, to take care of our streets.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map: Spokane’s future road repairs?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ROAD BUILDERS GIVE BIG The “Yes! For Better Streets” campaign had raised about $32,000 as of Aug. 28. Top contributors include: Acme Materials and Construction, $7,000 Build East (political action committee for Association of General Contractors), $5,000 Murphy Brothers Inc. (contractors), $5,000 Inland Asphalt Co., $5,000 Shamrock Paving Co., $3,000 Northwest Cooperation Fund (laborers’ union education committee), $2,000 Inland Automobile Association, $1,000 Western Asphalt and Emulsion Inc., $1,000 Idaho Asphalt Supply Inc., $1,000 The “Naysayers,” an anti-bond group, has raised about $250 in small contributions.