The region has long needed a dedicated funding source to keep up with street maintenance. We think a promising choice would be a countywide transportation benefit district since motorists routinely cross jurisdictions. Unfortunately, that approach hasn’t gotten as far as it needs to.
In the meantime, we support the bid to raise street maintenance money for the city of Spokane with a $20 car tab as long as the new levy isn’t used to offset shortfalls elsewhere in the city budget.
In 2004, voters approved a 10-year street bond that raised property taxes to finance road maintenance, but not before then-Mayor Jim West produced a detailed list of projects that would be completed. The state has also discovered that voters will go along with gas-tax increases if they are told where the money will be spent.
Thus, it is no surprise that the Spokane City Council’s path to a car tab has hit a significant pothole. The money raised from the tabs would be spent on streets, but current funds for that purpose could get shifted to other departments to fill shortfalls and to reward employee bargaining units for agreeing to compensation concessions. In the end, the city could spend approximately the same amount on streets, even with a new funding source. This has given some council members pause. As it should.
Before the tabs could be agreed upon, the council voted to shift $1.5 million in transportation accounts to departments whose workers have agreed to concessions. All city employee unions have been asked to give up their 2011 raises and to cover more health care costs. The union covering street workers has not agreed to do so. This conundrum was summed up by Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who said she wanted to raise money for streets but did not want to reward a union that hasn’t cooperated during a budget crisis.
In a perfect world, Local 270 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees would make the concessions. But moving money out of street accounts sends a signal to voters that if they pay for local tabs, the proceeds may be spent in other areas. That could kill future efforts to raise street maintenance funds. The 10-year street bond expires in 2014, and the city will either need to renew it, find another source of funding or watch the streets drift back into disrepair.
Even before the council voted to shift money, the street department was facing the loss of 14 jobs. That is a considerable consequence for not cooperating. The city’s budget director says reserves are available to help departments that did cooperate.
We understand the desire to pressure Local 270, but the collateral damage to the car tab idea isn’t worth it. The city would not only be foreclosing on a logical funding source, it would be crippling future efforts to raise money for street upkeep.