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Monte Council urges mayor to ‘slow down’ on potential property tax for street repairs

Tom Frederiksen | or The Vidette These cracks and pot holes are at Spruce Street at the entrance into the Montesano High School complex -- one of the worst around.
Tom Frederiksen | or The Vidette These cracks and pot holes are at Spruce Street at the entrance into the Montesano High School complex -- one of the worst around.

Montesano City Council members backed away from a potential $20 million bond last week. No one was quite ready to embrace the idea of a tax increase spearheaded by the city’s street taskforce as a way to pay for much needed street repairs in the city.

Individual council members said they were hearing loud and clear from constituents that it was not a good time to do such a huge tax that could have gone to the voters and asked for a tax increase of $800 a year for 20 years on the typical $225,000 home in the city.

Instead, the council followed a suggestion made by Mayor Ken Estes to have two council members join two members of the street taskforce and two members of the public to come up with a plan of what to do and when to do it. Estes proposed a pretty aggressive 30-day meeting schedule, but Councilman Ken Walkington urged the mayor to “slow down.”

“I don’t even understand why there’s a hurry,” Councilwoman Pam McElliott added. “There was no way the council was going to do it. I do think we need to take some time. Who cares if we get it on the ballot this year? I totally agree with that. Let’s do one project at a time if that’s what it takes. I don’t want to pay anymore. I don’t think we can afford it.”

Estes put the issue on the council’s agenda after a workshop conducted last month that looked at all of the city’s problem roads and what it would take to fix it all. The report from the street taskforce found that it would cost $19 million to fix, and in some cases replace, city streets. It would cost about $1 million to bring the sidewalks up to minimum standards, as well as improve crosswalks, the street task force found. The street task force went street by street and looked at potential trip hazards, pot holes that need filled and streets that need to be completely dug up and replaced.

“They generally look like pretty good projects,” former mayor Dick Stone told the council last week. “The challenge with a task force like this is that we bring together a group of people who obviously care about an issue and you tell them to do a good job and so they spend a lot of time and effort doing a very good job. Typically, though, a single, narrowly focused tasked group doesn’t have to consider all of the other things that surround an issue like this. What they don’t tend to consider is what the trade-offs are or what the costs are and is the project actually doable and can you actually get it passed.”

Stone said he had talked to some friends and neighbors and there was general consensus that this “was a non-issue because the people will never pass it.”

“It’s going to be a tough sell,” Stone said. “As much as people like the idea of their streets working, having to pay an additional thousand dollars a year on your taxes is a pretty big stretch for most people. I think you run a real risk. One, you poison the well. You go out there with a big project that doesn’t pass, it’ll make it even harder if you scale it back in the future to get something to pass. And, this day and age, getting it to pass is not a trivial challenge.”

Instead, Stone urged the council to consider a more reasonable tax increase, perhaps, a boost of $100 per year would be more appealing?

He also urged the council to prioritize projects now that they have a long list to look at.

Walkington urged the mayor to go that same route.

“How do you eat an elephant?” Walkington said. “One bite at a time and you need to scale this down a little bit, just tackle the main thoroughfares. … I think it’s going to take some head nods from the council on where are we on all this — do you want dollars to dictate what we do on the streets or the streets to dictate how much money we want to spend?”

Estes pointed out that the city can’t even afford a modest street program without some kind of dedicated revenue. Estes said if the residents don’t want to find the funds to repair the streets, at some point the roads will just all revert back to gravel — or be plagued with consistent pot holes.

“I think the task force has taken a lot of time and effort,” Councilwoman Marisa Salzer said. “I think we need to take that much time and care to try and find a funding solution as well.”

“It took 17 months to get here,” Estes said. “Do we have 17 more months?”

“I think we do and I’ll tell you why,” Councilman Chris Hutchings replied. “When I looked at the document from the taskforce and looked at some of the funding options, it was all about taxes and bonds.”

Instead, Hutchings said the council needs to pay down the debt owed in its water fund faster. The city is using its timber revenue on that debt. When the debt is gone, Hutchings points out, the city could then declare a chunk of its forest sales as “surplus” and then use that money for the streets.

“We need an aggressive plan to pay off the debt linked to the water fund so we can start surplussing money from the forest revenue to do these projects,” Hutchings said.

One resident commented to the City Council that they had looked all over the city’s website for the street taskforce documents and couldn’t find it. City Administrator Kristy Powell said that the taskforce used larger sheets that don’t scan very well.

Walkington called on Powell to find a way to scan the documents so it can be uploaded and the public can be educated as to the specific contents of the reports.