Saturday, June 28, 2014

Historical Perspective Thought for the Weekend.

As we relax this weekend and get ready for the 4th of July, I feel a little time travel thought experiment might be fun.

In a thousand years, will San Angelo be a healthy community with a continuous historic connection back through today to Ft. Concho, etc. or will it be just another archeological site being studied for why it failed to survive and thrive?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Taking it to the Streets

We're in the middle of the budget cycle right now and for the next several months when the City Council isn't talking about water they're going to be talking about streets. It's an important issues and it's overdue.

There is no doubt about it. Many (most?)  of our streets are in terrible shape. There will be lots of talk about how they got in this shape. Bad decisions were made on maintenance philosophy and priorities. We need to understand how we got here to prevent this from happening again and again. The reality is that many cities are facing the same problem with aging streets and infrastructure. It's hard to do good planning for something with a 25 year or longer life span when your only on the job for two years at a stretch. It.s easy to get hung up on finger pointing and trying to place blame. That won't fix the streets. 

It will take time, commitment, resources, and money to fix this problem. And this is where we need to pay close attention. How do we pay for these repairs. We're already hearing a lot of talk about this. City staff gave a presentation at the last City Council meeting about how to pay for this. It was really more complex than it needed to be. Here are simple basics that need to be kept in mind during this discussion.

These road repairs will be paid for by tax dollars. That's a given but it's easy to forget. It will come out of property tax, sales tax, grants from the state or federal government which are just returned tax dollars, etc.. The money can be money that's already being collected or it can be from a tax increase but fixing the roads will be your tax dollars at work.

If we use money that's already being collected we will have to spend less tax money on something else that the city is doing. Real priorities would have to be made. Some services might have to be scaled back or eliminated and roads would have to be seen as one of the basic function of our city government that they really are. I don't expect to see much of this because I doubt that many on council or staff are ready to admit that some of their pet projects don't perform as expected and shouldn't be held to the same priority as basic city services and infrastructure. They will still want to spend big bucks on things like streetscapes when the streets are bad.
The other way to get the money to fix the roads is to raise taxes. A lot of the presentation that staff gave was really about how do we raise taxes without actually calling it a tax increase. The slight of hand is you call the tax a fee. The one that seemed to be most favored was a "Street Maintenance User Fee" and would likely be set at a rate to collect between 2 and 3 million dollars a year. At the current tax rate, that's between 6 and 9 cents of property tax. If implemented like it's been proposed, it will also be a very regressive tax. It will be an add on to the current utility (aka water) bill and will have no real relationship to how much wear and tear you put on the roads. If you have a water bill, you will pay about $5/month even if you don't own a car while big, multimillion dollar companies with fleets of trucks that put the most wear and tear on roads will be subsidized because they will not be paying based on the damage they do to roads but how big their water meter is.

Over the past 10 or so years the City council has lowered property taxes by about $.10. They snuck in a tax increase a few years ago by adding on a storm water fee that's about equal to $.08 in property tax. They justified calling it a fee because it is somewhat tied to the amount of storm water clean up property might create because of it's impermeable surface like buildings, parking lots, and driveways. It's still a tax but at least it's somewhat based on what's causing the problem. Adding $5.00 onto the utility bill is a pure and simple tax. There is no real connection having a water bill and how much damage is done to the roads. We might have on the books a $.10 reduction in property tax but the reality we will end up with a $.05 to $.10 increase in real taxes.

San Angelo still  has one of the highest tax loads in the state, especially as a proportion of individual or family income.  Any method of paying for road repairs should do three things. It should focus on the real basic functions of the city government and recognize that some popular things need to be put lower into their proper priority. Any tax increase should designed in such a way that the people putting the hardest use on the road pay the biggest share of fixing the roads. And when taxes do go up, have the guts to call it a tax instead of hiding it behind a label of "FEE". Seems more truthful that way.