City: Funding street work expensive but necessary

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File photo Street maintenance is expensive but important, say Moses Lake city officials, and cities don’t have many ways to raise the necessary money. Moses Lake city officials formed a transportation benefit district to raise the money.

MOSES LAKE — Streets and roads, and how they’re paid for, has become a topic of discussion in Moses Lake since city officials voted to start a transportation benefit district. At least initially it will be funded with a $20 charge when Moses Lake residents register their vehicles. Moses Lake City Council members have discussed replacing that charge with a two-tenths of 1 percent increase in the sales tax.

“No one likes to raise taxes and this is a difficult thing to do,” said Moses Lake City Council member Karen Liebrecht in a Columbia Basin Herald story published March 2. (The city council also serves as the governing body for the transportation benefit district.) The charge takes effect in October.

Why did city officials start a TBD? Doesn’t the city already have money for its streets?

Well, yes and no, said city manager John Williams.

The problem, Williams said, is that cities don’t have a lot of options when it comes to funding street repair and maintenance. Counties receive funds for transportation, but “that tool is not available to cities. Never has been,” Williams said.

According to data from the Grant County treasurer, currently the median assessment for homes in Moses Lake is about $145,000. A property owner currently pays about $1,996 total in property taxes. Of that the city gets about $477, about 24 percent. The rest goes to other entities – schools, hospitals, libraries and Grant County. About 17 percent (about $335) goes into a state fund used to pay for schools statewide.

Like all cities, Moses Lake does receive a share of the state’s gas tax. “But that pretty much funds just having a street department.” Traditionally cities have been on their own when it comes to paying for keeping the streets in good shape, Williams said.

Like all city services except utilities, street maintenance is part of the general fund, duking it out for funding with the police department and fire department and other services. Street maintenance is pretty spendy, he said, but it’s also important.

“The biggest enemy of streets is water,” Williams said. Melting snow and rain seeps into cracks, sometimes messes with the subsoil, sometimes freezes. Either way it damages streets.

Repairs are expensive, Williams said – about $1,500 each lane mile for chip sealing. True to its name, chip sealing seals the cracks. Overlay is also true to its name, covering the entire street with a new layer of material. In a perfect world with a perfect street maintenance schedule, streets would get an overlay about every 25 years.

Repairs do extend the life of a street, Williams said. Streets are supposed to last about 50 years; lack of maintenance can cut that in half. “We’re going as far as we can with the dollars we have,” he said, but the city has an estimated $13.5 million in deferred maintenance.

The $20 charge can be raised to $40 after two years, and can be raised to $50 two years after that. But raising it to $50 requires a public vote.

The other option is the sales tax increase, which also requires a public vote. Council members approved an ordinance authorizing a vote, but haven’t selected an election date, Williams said.

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