After learning 76 percent of survey takers said they would support at least a 5-cent fuel tax, Bend City Councilors decided to pursue the possibility of a referendum to the voters this November for a fuel tax as an increased funding source for street maintenance.
But before making any decisions, councilors agreed they need to analyze the budget to see if belt tightening or reallocation of funds could be done. They are also awaiting the results of Bend 2030’s transportation survey, which is scheduled to be presented at the July 15 city council meeting.
“Monday’s meeting resulted in a deeper look at exploring the redirection of existing revenues to streets, but also kept additional funding tools and options on the table,” wrote Bend City Manager Eric King in an email. “Honestly, I envision a potential transportation package that includes both of those approaches. The street maintenance and transportation needs are of the magnitude that it will require a multi-pronged approach resulting in some tough decisions ahead.”
Su Midghall, president and principal of DHM Research, presented the survey results to councilors. The 10-minute telephone survey polled 300 voters. Road maintenance and improved bus services were the most important transportation issues to the survey takers.
Over 60 percent of voters rated road conditions in Bend as poor. A majority of the voters, 54 percent, believed the City of Bend had enough funds to maintain roads, while 43 percent said the city did not have enough funds. But when factoring in the margin of error, Midghall said the community is actually split.
“This is not going to be an easy sell.” Midghall said. “The fact that (voters) perceive the city as having enough funds is a barrier. It also signifies that you need spokespeople outside of government.”
A fuel tax and a studded tire fee were the preferred funding sources to fund transportation improvements, according to the survey. More than 60 percent of voters said they would support a 10-cent fuel tax that would cost $4 per month, while 34 percent opposed. Out of the voters who opposed the 10-cent fuel tax, 37 percent said they would support a 5-cent option at $2 per month. Therefore, combined, 76 percent of voters said they would support at least a 5-cent fuel tax.
“I haven’t seen numbers past the 60s for any tax issue in the last five years,” Midghall said.
According to the survey, voters said the top reason to support more money for transportation improvements was “the condition of roads in Bend has been deteriorating. We need to invest now to save money in the long run.”
Councilor Sally Russell said a fuel tax is definitely going to be one of the key components in the funding conversation.
“It will help us to have an aggressive street preservation program, beyond what we could do any other way right now with our existing income,” she said. “We do need to be fiscally responsible, but we also need to be brave and make decisions that are going to ultimately cost our community less.”
Russell said one of the reasons she supports a fuel tax is because it’s a user tax.
“When our population expands by 50 percent or more during the tourist season, we capture their impact on our roads and share that burden with everyone,” she said.
Russell compared street preservation to a vehicle: If you don’t want to spend the money on the routine maintenance of getting your car’s oil changed, you are going to damage your transmission and have to have the transmission replaced, which will be much more costly in the long run.
“It’s going to cost businesses money now or later. The question is, do they want to spend a little bit now or a lot later?” she said. “This is the third year we’ve had this discussion. If we wait another year to find a more robust funding stream, then next year we’ll need an even more robust funding stream… Let’s work as a community to solve this problem and to understand the value of a little investment now.”
But not everyone agrees that a fuel tax should be part of the solution.
The main reasons survey takers said they were opposed to a tax was because “Bend residents pay enough in fees and taxes, the city needs to use the existing money more wisely.”
Jeff Eager of Balyeat & Eager LLP Attorneys at Law is representing a group of local fuel business owners who are opposed to the tax – no matter the amount.
“Our position is that the gas tax is unnecessary and will be harmful to small businesses in Bend,” he said. “It’s unnecessary because the city has enough funds from existing revenue sources to provide the amount of funding that would be created by the fuel tax.”
Eager said a fuel tax would raise the price of fuel in Bend relative to surrounding areas; increase costs for business who use a significant amount of fuel; and cause the price of services and goods for consumers to go up.
“People who would be most affected are those that live and work in Bend,” Eager said. “It’s very easy for tourists and people who commute into Bend to buy gas somewhere else. City council might be overestimating the degree to which the gas tax would force tourists to help fix our streets.”
Councilor Victor Chudowsky said he’s undecided on whether or not he would vote for a fuel tax. During the meeting he stressed the importance of analyzing the budget.
“What you’re going to have to convince people is this extra money is needed for the purpose of street maintenance,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to do when they see our budget is going up.”
The goal, he said, is to add $2.5 million a year to the street maintenance budget.
“I want to direct the 2.5 million to fill pot holes and nothing else,” Chudowsky said. “That’s what people are complaining about.”
There is about 80 million in deferred street maintenance. Although councilors identified transportation and street maintenance as a priority in their goal setting sessions, additional funds weren’t allocated to go towards that maintenance.
The budget was passed with the expectation that a fuel tax would pass, Chudowsky said. For example, councilors passed the requests departments asked for. Maybe instead of giving a department the 10 percent increase asked for, the budget could be adjusted to give that department an 8 percent increase instead, he said.
Councilor Doug Knight said it’s all hands on deck. He said he’d be in support of asking the voters for a fuel tax if the budget is examined to prove to voters the councilors are doing everything they can.
“That means scrutinizing our budget in a way we haven’t before,” Knight said.
King said councilors will have to act in August if they would like a fuel tax to be on the November ballot.
Want to bring yourself up to speed on the future of transit in Bend? Hear from panelists Andrew Spreadborough of Cascades East Transit/COIC, Amy Tykeson, managing trustee for the Tykeson Family Charitable Trust, and Bend City Councilor Victor Chudowsky at What’s Brewing this TUESDAY.