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Highway district seeks permanent funding fix

East Side Highway District supervisor John Pankratz inspects the poor condition of Mullan Trail Road, east of Coeur d'Alene. The district is having a levy election this Tuesday. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
East Side Highway District supervisor John Pankratz inspects the poor condition of Mullan Trail Road, east of Coeur d'Alene. The district is having a levy election this Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

East Side Highway District Supervisor John Pankratz talks about the fleet of aging graders, loaders and dump trucks as if they were family.

He beamed as he showed off a 1961 International sander, a green and white beast that helps the district keep traction on the 238 miles of roads each winter.

Then there’s the Athey force-feed loader, a huge hulk of rusting metal used to clean ditches.

“That ol’ girl,” Pankratz said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know how old she is.”

The old fleet requires crews to spend as much time fixing and tinkering as they do actually maintaining the network of roads that serve one of the fastest-growing areas of Kootenai County.

The district is asking voters Tuesday to approve a $500,000 property tax increase to maintain the roads and bridges already in use, replacing aging equipment and paying for skyrocketing gas and oil costs.

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

Since then, residents have seen some tax relief, and highway commissioners hope more residents are willing to permanently increase the amount of property tax collected each year in exchange for roads that will be in better shape.

Property owners in the district annually would pay an additional $20.50 per $100,000 of property value if the levy is approved. They now pay about $33 per $100,000 of property value.

The highway levy needs approval by two thirds of those who vote. That’s a tough requirement, Pankratz said.

Tom Lamb, who ranches near Harrison, said he thinks the highway district does a good job caring for the roads. But Lamb said he doesn’t like the idea of a permanent tax increase. He would rather have the district come back and ask for additional money every few years, like school districts do with supplemental levies.

“I look at it as a good check and balance,” Lamb said. “To me, it’s almost like giving away a right. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Pankratz said the commission opted for a permanent tax increase because people get tired of repeatedly going to the polls. Plus, the steady income makes it easier for the district to plan projects and know the money is available, he said.

The commission notes that the additional money would not be spent on new roads associated with growth that puts more cars and wear on the roads.

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, where heavy development is happening.

Besides needing money to maintain roads and buy equipment, district officials also fear the loss of Craig-Wyden federal timber payments to counties that include large amounts of national forestlands. If the payment program is not renewed, the district’s maintenance and operation budget would be cut by 71 percent, or about $180,000. And that would mean less maintenance and road repairs and perhaps fewer employees.

Congress is debating whether to reauthorize the payments, which began in 2000 to supplement revenues counties historically received from logging and other industrial activities on national forest lands.

Pankratz hopped in his pickup last week to give a tour of a small portion of the 141 miles of gravel roads and 97 miles of paved roads in the East Side Highway District. He drove from the district office on Mullan Trail Road to the intersection with Sunnyside Road, and stopped to show off the “alligators” – lateral cracks in the pavement that eventually become pot holes.

The cracks need to be sealed with a mixture of oil and gravel that improves traction and keeps out moisture, Pankratz said. Normally such a treatment should last about 10 years, but increased traffic and North Idaho weather is reducing the lifespan to about 7 years, he said.

Before Pankratz returned to his truck, he jumped in the ditch and pulled out a rusted muffler.

“You know the roads are getting rough when you start finding car parts,” he joked, tossing the piece in the back of his truck.

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