El Dorado County sales tax initiative to fix roads getting closer look
El Dorado County Department of Transportation Director Rafael Martinez’ matter-of-fact statement that the county’s Road Fund is “not sustainable any longer” resonated with county leaders.
Now, it’s his job to ensure the message resonates with voters.
The El Dorado Board of Supervisors approved 4-1 a motion on July 16 to spend approximately $50,000 over the next couple of months to hire a public opinion research firm that will carry out a survey gauging public opinion on a sales tax measure that, if approved, will raise money to repair the county’s aging roads.
District 2 Supervisor Shiva Frentzen was the lone “no” vote, saying she couldn’t support a sales tax increase and would prefer instead to explore other options.
The county staff report stated: “A half-cent sales tax measure in El Dorado County is estimated to result in approximately $6 million each year in revenue. For the first year in effect, the measure could receive a Local Partnership Program incentive match of another $6 million, plus possibly $400,000 in formulaic program funding, for a total of $12.4 million.”
If voters support the measure, which would likely appear on the November 2020 ballot if the board moves forward, the sales tax increase will apply to El Dorado County’s unincorporated areas as well as the cities of South Lake Tahoe and Placerville.
“One-hundred percent (of the money collected) would go to road maintenance,” Martinez said, adding that transparency and accountability will be key in getting voters to approve the ballot measure. It’s likely the measure will include creating a citizen’s oversight committee that would contribute to decision-making on how revenue is spent.
In 2017, South Lake Tahoe voters failed to pass a half-cent sales tax increase that would have generated money for road repairs in the city.
Over the last several months Martinez has spoken to community groups and the board, explaining that the main source of road maintenance funding — gas tax revenue — has come up short in recent years. State Senate Bill 1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (a voter-approved gas tax increase and vehicle licensing fee), was supposed to help jurisdictions recoup some lost revenue; however, Martinez said, the county isn’t receiving much help.
Of the $15 million to $18 million the county generates in SB1 revenue each year, it gets only $5 million back from the state.
If voters approved a sales tax increase specifically for road maintenance, the county would be eligible for more state funding. The state originally determined El Dorado County would receive $10 million in SB1 revenue, Martinez said, but then took back half because the county doesn’t have a “self-help” designation. A successful sales tax initiative (two-thirds of voters would have to approve) would meet this criteria.
While not disputing the importance of road maintenance, Placerville resident Bill George encouraged the board to focus on “cutting expenses instead of raising taxes.” As a senior on a fixed income, he added, “I can’t afford any more.”
Kim Beal, government affairs director for the El Dorado County Association of Realtors, pointed out that a sales tax measure is the only way to capture funds from those who use county roads but don’t live here (i.e. tourists). Beal and El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce CEO Laurel Brent-Bumb said they would support a ballot measure if written correctly with oversight.
Former Placerville Mayor Wendy Thomas, who served when the city passed its sales tax increase to improve its infrastructure, said the measure needs “strong, diligent community champions.” The key to Measure L’s success? “We helped the community fully understand the great need,” she said.
Martinez and staff will return to the board after the survey is complete to discuss whether to move forward with the sales tax measure and, if so, flush out the measure’s details and language that will appear on the ballot.