A glimmer of hope for Petaluma's streets
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 11:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:14 a.m.
At long last, there is a glimmer of hope for fixing Petaluma’s badly dilapidated streets.
On Monday night, the Petaluma City Council voted unanimously to endorse a proposed state constitutional amendment that would lower the voter threshold for passing local transportation tax increases from the two-thirds majority that is presently required, to a more reasonable 55 percent voter majority.
If such an amendment were to win legislative and voter approval, and there is a good chance it will, Petaluma officials could place a special tax measure on the ballot next year aimed at repairing and rebuilding local streets as well as funding the construction of the long-awaited Rainier crosstown connector. Were the voter approval threshold lowered to 55 percent, such a measure would have a reasonably good chance of passing.
Anyone driving on city streets these days can attest to their appalling condition. In 2011, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s report classified Petaluma’s streets as “at-risk,” and gave them a pavement condition index (pci) rating of 55 on a 100-point scale.
After 15 years of political debate on the issue and despite the city’s recent efforts to patch and seal many streets, the problem is only getting worse primarily because there is little money in the city’s strained budget to make significant repairs. Following last year’s dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency, which previously financed substantial repairs and reconstruction of several local roadways, the situation is sure to deteriorate even further in the years ahead without new funding.
In 2010, city officials estimated it would cost $6 million per year just to maintain current road conditions in Petaluma, and would cost $117 million to bring road conditions to an optimal rating of 85. The money simply does not exist to do the job.
The primary funding mechanism for local street maintenance is still state gas tax revenues. But with the sluggish economy, and more people driving fuel-efficient cars, those tax revenues have remained flat while the need for local street repair has mushroomed. The city has tried to supplement gas tax revenues with general fund revenues, but those too have withered over the last several years, leaving even fewer dollars for road maintenance.
A local transportation tax measure, with a clearly articulated list of specific projects to be funded and completed, would give residents an opportunity to consider a half cent sales tax increase to finance such improvements.
The other option city leaders are mulling over is to place a general purpose tax increase on the ballot that requires just over 50 percent voter approval. Voters in some municipalities have approved such measures in recent years because they considered it necessary to keep city services intact.
The one big drawback of a general purpose tax is that voters receive no assurance that streets or parks or anything else would actually be improved. Instead, the new tax revenues could easily get sucked into the ever-deepening black hole of unfunded employee pension obligations.
According to the most recent city fiscal forecasts, steeply rising pension and retiree health care costs will continue to consume an ever larger share of the city’s depleted budget, further eroding the quality and quantity of public services. And this is despite the fact that two new large shopping center projects will come online in the next 12 months that are anticipated to generate significant increases in sales tax revenues.
Many voters would be reluctant to support an general sales tax rate increase if they perceive that a large portion of the new revenues would go to fund out-of-control employee pension costs and pension debt, rather than fixing streets or parks.
Still, the general purpose tax measure is favored by some elected officials because it would give them the maximum amount of flexibility (some might call it a “blank check”) to do whatever they please with the money. Such flexibility, however, would be offset by the strong probability that a myriad of special interest groups would emerge to champion their own pet projects or causes. Given the very active political history of the city, the ensuing chaos could likely result in no project or program receiving enough money to make a significant difference for the public good.
Instead, City Council members would do well to direct city staff to get in touch with their counterparts at the City of El Cerrito where voters there decided to fix their streets by passing a half cent sales tax measure in 2008 that succeeded in bringing its road rating from “poor” to “very good” in just under four years.
If it can be done in El Cerrito, it can be done in Petaluma.
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