El Dorado County supervisors consider tax, fee increases for roads repairs
El Dorado County supervisors gave the green light to exploring a sales tax initiative that, if approved by voters, will boost the county’s transportation coffers.
The 4-1 decision came after El Dorado County Department of Transportation Director Rafael Martinez told the Board of Supervisors earlier this month that both DOT’s Road Fund (road maintenance and repair) and Capital Improvement Program (new infrastructure projects and improvements) will have significant revenue shortfalls in the coming years, if not already.
“If we don’t take the first step now we are going to get further behind,” Martinez said.
A second 4-1 vote authorized a major update to the county’s Traffic Impact Mitigation Fee Program. TIM fees are collected on new development and the program funds a major portion of the CIP. This decision was made shortly after supervisors approved a TIM fee annual update that includes 4% to 5% increases in residential fees in most zones in the county (El Dorado Hills zone’s fees slightly decreased) and 4 to 8% increases in non-residential fees.
Martinez said during his presentation that non-residential (i.e. commercial) TIM fees would have to increase by 150% and residential by 140% to make up the expected $120 million shortfall anticipated over the life of the 20-year CIP.
The DOT director attributed much of the shortfall to a lower than expected number of building permits pulled (at which time fees are paid), loss of federal funding and the fact that the county no longer receives state grants for road construction projects — all assumptions made when setting the TIM fees.
Rising construction costs were also cited; Martinez told the board those costs have tripled over the last 20 years.
The TIM fee major update will take approximately two years as staff needs time to fully analyze expected growth, project needs/costs, etc. As required by law, the county must show a nexus between project costs and the fees charged.
The drastic fee increase proposals that could come back to the board for approval shocked both supervisors and some audience members.
“Forget about affordable housing,” said Supervisor Shiva Frentzen, who was the lone holdout for both votes, saying she didn’t feel comfortable moving forward with a sales tax initiative until the county takes a closer look at its philosophy regarding how it calculates its TIM fees and explores other funding options for both road maintenance and new road construction projects.
Frentzen and El Dorado Hills Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Debbie Manning also noted that a major hike in commercial TIM fees would hinder the county’s ability to attract new businesses and stifle economic development. Noting that commercial fees went up last year, Manning told the board another 150% increase doesn’t exactly say “open for business.”
El Dorado County Auditor-Controller Joe Harn supported the idea of higher residential fees, and sooner rather than later. He told supervisors that the county already owes residential developers a lot of money — funds advanced to the county to build road improvements needed to mitigate development projects’ impacts — and even suggested they not OK the fee decrease in the El Dorado Hills area presented in the annual TIM fee update.
“The TIM fees we are charging are too low,” Harn told the Mountain Democrat after Tuesday’s meeting.
“The voter adopted General Plan requires a fully funded road capacity improvement plan,” he continued. “The board has the option to raise the fee residential real estate developers are charged on an interim basis while the two-year fee update study is completed. I spoke to and emailed the chief administrative officer and county counsel … regarding moving an interim fee increase forward quickly as is required by the intent of the voter-adopted General Plan.”
The option of removing projects from the CIP to decrease costs was mentioned by Martinez; however, he noted, that would violate General Plan level of service policies. The only way to make that idea work would be to modify voter-approved Measure Y via a new ballot measure.
Other options on the table include creating more zones of benefit to bring in additional funds for repair/maintenance in specific areas/neighborhoods and looking for additional efficiencies within DOT.
But fee increases and a road-specific sales tax increase are likely the biggest and most-needed moneymakers.
Grizzly Flat resident Mark Almer said he would support a sales tax initiative, explaining that better roads are better for the local economy.
“If people don’t like driving on our roads they’ll go to Sonoma wine country,” he told the board. “Then we’ll be in even worse shape.”
Placerville resident Terry Kayes said he’s willing to pay $1,000 more a year in taxes if the revenue goes toward roads. He also suggested the county consider abandoning some of the rarely used, rural roads in the county.
DOT currently has nearly 1,110 miles of road to maintain plus bridges, culverts, ditches, etc.
But Camino resident Sue Taylor admonished the board for what she called a history of choosing developers over residents and criticized the supervisors’ decision to build a multi-million-dollar public safety facility.
Instead, she told the board, the current and previous boards should have been saving money to address transportation needs.
Martinez did acknowledge that DOT “did see this coming” as related to decreased Road Fund revenue but said when Senate Bill 1 came along and the statewide voter initiative passed, El Dorado County and every other county was made promises that this revenue would fill the gap. That promise has fallen through, the DOT director said.
“It is frustrating.”