Lakewood council to discuss tax increase to pay for roads

The time has come for the Lakewood City Council to decide how it will pay for future road maintenance and what long term road projects it can afford to see built.

General maintenance and the city’s six-year transportation plan will cost more than what the city estimates it will collect in revenues in the coming years, forcing the council to find additional money or let its 180 miles of pavement decline, potentially to the point of disrepair.

Despite already scrubbing the budget to find savings, the council still needs to come up with alternative ways to generate money. Options available include implementing a $20 vehicle license renewal fee and asking voters to approve a property tax increase. The $20 fee increase does not require a public vote.

The council is prioritizing its transportation project list to reduce the total number of projects to find savings, but despite reducing a list of 10 projects to seven the savings aren’t significant. That’s because the council has asked for additional work on some of the projects, City Manager John Caulfield said.

The council will resume its prioritization talks Monday (July 14) when it meets as the city’s transportation benefit district board following its regular council meeting. The council will also review a draft ordinance to authorize the $20 car tab fee collection. The ordinance would stop collections after six years or once the roadwork it is earmarked to fund is complete, whichever comes first.

Mayor Don Anderson said it was unclear whether the council would vote Monday to go forward with the $20 fee, but based on council discussions he thinks a vote is inevitable.

“I think everyone on the council is in agreement we would be wise to act on enhancing our pavement preservation now so that we don’t get so far behind the curve that we can’t reasonably catch up,” he said.

The $20 fee would be used to help pay for road maintenance, including chip seals and overlays. It takes six months after the fee is implemented for the city to receive the money, which is why Caulfield is pushing for a decision by the end of summer.

“Their desire is to get going on overlays and chip seals beginning in 2015,” he said. “If they are committed to doing it, they would need to vote before the end of the year.”

Caulfield also plans to ask for direction Monday on the property tax increase that is proposed to rise incrementally over three years.

“My best guess is that we’ll elect as a group to send something to the voters and see how well they want to maintain the streets,” Anderson said.

But before deciding how much to increase taxes the council has to first identify what projects it wants to see built. Once the cost to build them is known the city will know how much taxes would need to go up to pay for the work, Caulfield said.

Any property tax increase would require a super majority, or 60 percent approval from voters, and the total number of voters must be at least 40 percent of the total turnout from the last general election.

The council has discussed how to pay for Lakewood transportation needs for years, relying on advisory committees and public surveys for guidance. It formed the transportation benefit district in 2012 so it could collect street revenue as an independent taxing district, but it has failed to move forward with a plan until now.

City Public Works staff has been updating the council on the status of the city’s roads in that time, making it clear action is needed to keep the roads maintained at a level that is most cost efficient. If the roads deteriorate past a certain point, it becomes significantly more expensive to maintain them, said transportation division manager Desiree Winkler.

“In the last few years we haven’t done the preventive maintenance that is needed and the roads have deteriorated,” she said. “We’re trying to do the best we can.”

City leaders know they’ll be up against a perception that the roads are fine because they have been maintained consistently until recently. Two major road projects on Pacific Highway and Bridgeport Way also could give the impression the city has the money to fund major projects, but that’s not the case, Winkler said.

“All of the projects that (taxpayers) see have been grant funded,” she said. “We really cannot depend on grant funds to take care of our basic needs, which is preventative maintenance.”