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Highway district seeks tax hike

Tue., April 17, 2007

The East Side Highway District will ask voters in May to approve a $500,000 property tax increase so it can keep up with routine road repairs in one of the fastest-growing areas of Kootenai County.

The district of about 7,500 registered voters rejected a similar $400,000 proposal last year, a request that came at the height of anxiety over escalating property values and in the wake of a failed local school levy.

Since then, taxpayers have seen some relief and the highway commission hopes more residents are willing to permanently increase the amount of property tax collected each year in exchange for better maintained roads.

“We need help,” Commission Chairman Dick Edinger said, adding that district residents always ask for better roads.

He said the additional money isn’t for new roads associated with growth but instead is to maintain the roads and bridges already in use, whether it’s replacing aging equipment or paying for skyrocketing gas and oil costs.

Property owners within the district would pay an annual increase of about $20.50 per $100,000 of property value if the levy is passed. Currently property owners pay about $33 per $100,000 of property value.

The election is May 22. The highway levy needs approval by 66.6 percent of the voters.

The district includes the eastern tip of the city of Coeur d’Alene and extends east to Cataldo and south to the Benewah County line – an area encompassing roads on the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene that are experiencing heavy development.

Last month, a neighborhood watchdog group called for a building moratorium along state Highway 97, wanting building stopped until a variety of studies are completed. The Kootenai County Commission rejected the idea.

Highway 97 is a state road and not maintained by the East Side Highway District, yet nearly every road that connects to it, such as Burma and Gozzer roads, is within the district.

A Neighbors for Responsible Growth spokeswoman said Monday that the group isn’t taking a position on the levy.

District commissioners said the population boom is causing the 141 miles of gravel roads and 97 miles of paved roads to deteriorate faster than the district can make repairs.

Another concern for the district is the potential loss of Craig-Wyden timber payments to counties that include large amounts of national forestlands. Commissioner Jimmie Dorsey said that would mean a reduction in the district’s maintenance and operation budget of 71 percent or about $180,000 – equating to less maintenance and perhaps fewer employees, which would also result in fewer road repairs.

Congress is debating whether to reauthorize the payments started in 2000 to supplement forest revenue.

Edinger said last year residents wrongly assumed the district wanted additional money to support the area’s growth, and it was criticized for not charging developers impact fees.

State law doesn’t allow highway districts to collect impact fees, which are charges assessed on residential and commercial building permits. Only the county commission can collect the fees.

The East Side Highway District and other local highway districts want to share in the cost of a study to determine how much growth is affecting the county’s infrastructure, including roads. It would sort out how much revenue the fee system should generate and show how the county and other taxing districts could spend the money.

Even if the county eventually charges impact fees, the highway commissioners said the district still needs additional money to maintain the current roads.

“This is to take care of what’s out there,” Dorsey said.

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