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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How much would you pay for better roads in Spokane Valley? The city wants to know

The city of Spokane Valley is joining the Spokane County Commission in objecting to a proposal from the city of Spokane to collect a 20% on revenue generated by Spokane County's Water Reclaimation facililty. The facility is operated by Spokane County but is within the city of Spokane's borders.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane Valley plans to ask the public how much work roads need and how much in new taxes they would be willing to pay for those improvements.

During a meeting Tuesday, city council members agreed to put together a committee of community members and representatives from local businesses and agencies that would discuss the future of Spokane Valley’s streets. They also discussed the possibility of a community survey and holding workshops to hear from as many constituents as possible.

Spokane Valley City Council members have been divided on how to approach road funding for years, with some advocating for a utility tax, and others arguing the city council should spend down any excess revenue or extra funding on roads before looking to new taxes. That divide most recently manifested in the debate around the city budget, with two council members, Arne Woodard and Rod Higgins, refusing to vote for the 2021 budget because it did not include a long-term source of funding for road preservation.

Street maintenance in Spokane Valley used to be funded with a combination of telephone and gas taxes, but both of those have been steadily declining as more and more people disconnect their landlines in favor of cellphones, and vehicles become more efficient. Since 2017, the city has had to draw on reserves, surplus revenue, capital projects and other funds to pay to maintain streets.

Higgins, who was mayor the last time the city discussed potential new taxes to pay for road preservation, said the city needs to gather people who understand the condition of the roads and can come to a consensus on what they should look like in the future. Higgins once floated a utility tax, arguing existing revenues may one day not be enough. Now he wants to give the committee a chance to research a long-term solution and what type of tax they would be willing to pay.

“It has to be dependable, and it’s got to be consistent so it’s not fluctuating with the variables of national or state economics,” he said.

Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick first advocated for a series of workshops, saying he wasn’t sure a whole committee was needed, but he is open to hearing the feedback the group gathers. Wick has been consistently against a new tax for pavement preservation, saying the city has had enough surplus in the last several years to cover the cost of maintaining streets. He said the economic devastation many have suffered during the pandemic has made him even more hesitant to pursue new taxes.

“We’re looking to see what their thoughts are, but bear in mind we also need to be sensitive of the pandemic,” Wick said.

He said he sees a few possible outcomes from the committee: city council voting on a new tax, or a tax measure being put on a future ballot.

City Councilman Tim Hattenburg said he anticipates it will be at least a year before the committee or the city council comes to a decision on how to pay for street preservation. Hattenburg said he has worked as a delivery driver during the pandemic and driven many city roads over the last several months, and they’re in fairly good shape compared to other areas. He said he is open to a new funding source because he would like to keep city streets in good condition.

“We really haven’t had that conversation, and it’s something that’s needed,” he said. “I feel pretty good that we all know we need to do something. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

The remaining four city council members, Linda Thompson, Brandi Peetz, Woodard and Pam Haley, were also supportive of the committee and other outreach efforts to see what community members had to say about street maintenance and potential new taxes.

According to city council documents, the committee could begin meeting as soon as April and work toward a solution for the rest of the year. It will likely include two council members and representatives from local schools, businesses, social service groups, utility companies and several community members. City Spokesman Jeff Kleingartner said the staff was still discussing the logistics of how and when the committee would be put together.

More details will be released by the end of February.