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Taxes off the table to repair streets in Montesano

MONTESANO — Montesano City Council members have pretty much dropped any potential property tax geared toward street repairs, at least for the moment. During a workshop on April 22, council members discussed various street funding ideas in the wake of reports from the mayor’s task force, which looked at the need for $20 million in repairs across various streets and sidewalks. The street task force floated the idea of a $20 million bond, spread out over 20 years, which could have raised annual property taxes for some in the city by as much as $800. The idea landed like a lead balloon and doesn’t look to be gaining any traction.

“I am not trying to force anything upon you,” Mayor Ken Estes said in opening up the workshop by reading a written statement. “The street task force met for 17 months and provided their best guess on costs. They also made several suggestions on how to do this. There was not intent by them or me to do anything more than suggest. It was left entirely up to you to determine what or if any suggestion was to be done. This committee does not make policy nor was their report in any way a demand to you. It was to inform.”

City Administrator Kristy Powell quizzed the council later, “Are we pretty much in agreement — I don’t want to tie anyone to this — but is anyone interested in putting this on the ballot?”

“Absolutely not,” Councilman Tyler Trimble said.

“I think that would be foolish,” Councilman Ken Walkington added, with nods in agreement by the other council members.

“If you wanted to put a little on the ballot, it’s 19 cents per thousand to get $1 million,” Powell added. “But if you go for a ballot, you ought to go big or go home. So if the answer is ‘no,’ then that wipes out one of the options and we’re going to look for something else.”

“I say let’s go home,” Councilman Walkington added.

Without a dedicated tax for streets, it leaves the council with very few options. Public Works Director Rocky Howard notes that if the city begins digging up some of the water mains throughout town, which are 50 to 90 years old, they could legitimately tap into the city’s utility funds to not just replace the water lines, but also replace the streets.

The city of Elma recently did this to replace one of its major arterials.

Councilwoman Marisa Salzer asked if the water mains had exhausted their normal life cycle.

“Oh yeah,” Howard said. “We’re way past that.”

They should have been replaced decades ago, he added.

Councilman Chris Hutchings had suggested paying off the debt owed in the utility funds to eventually free up timber revenue to pay for street repairs. Councilman Pat Herrington spoke against that idea, saying he didn’t think that was an appropriate use of those funds.

“You couldn’t cut the trees fast enough to replace some of these streets,” Howard added.

Another idea is to lean on the state’s Public Works Trust Fund. Last year, the state had agreed to give Montesano $560,340 to reconstruct Church Street and its roadway, sidewalks and utilities from East Broadway Avenue to East Pioneer Avenue as well as $745,660 to remove and replace a failed roadway at Pioneer Avenue from South Church Street to South Academy Street. But those funds were stripped away to balance the state’s budget in 2013. Howard said the city could reapply, but should be prepared to take part, if not all of the funds, in the form of some kind of loan.

As far as priorities, Howard said the city has a six-year transportation plan that it leans on to figure out what projects to do first. For the most part, the plan focuses on the downtown core streets and major arterials.

Walkington said that no matter what is done, the city ought to do traffic studies on its major roads to settle on which ways residents go that have the most traffic. Those roads and intersections should be done first, he said.

Howard said the city will also be applying for a state grant to improve the school route taken on Church Street, used by youth traveling to school. “We see a lot of kids walking up Church,” Howard said, adding he didn’t want to see them fall on a pot hole or a jagged sidewalk and hurt themselves.