Measure C failed: What now for South Lake Tahoe’s roads?
As the initial results rolled in Tuesday evening from South Lake Tahoe’s special election, one thing was clear: Measure C was not going to reach the two-thirds vote threshold needed to pass.
Of the 2,762 votes counted in the unofficial results, 53 percent (1,469) voted in favor of Measure C, a ½-percent sales tax increase that would raise money legally-restricted for the repair and rehabilitation of South Lake Tahoe roads. According to unofficial results from the El Dorado County Elections Department, 1,288 people (47 percent) voted against it.
As a special tax, Measure C required at least 66.7 percent in favor in order to pass.
Measure C was the only item on the ballot in the special election, which had a low voter turnout. Only 28 percent of the registered voters in South Lake Tahoe cast ballots in the election, though mail-in ballots arriving within three days of Election Day — but post-marked on or before Nov. 7 — may not have all been counted. Official election results can take up to 30 days to be released.
So what now for South Lake Tahoe’s roadways, which currently have $41-million worth of deferred maintenance?
“We are pleased that we got the majority of the vote, so I think we have some options,” said Mayor Pro Tem Wendy David. “Some options are to meet with community members and talk more about what a measure would need to pass and go to the voters again. We will also continue, as we have, to look at other ways to fund roads. We’ve gone out for a lot of grants.”
David maintains that there is not money within the budget to consistently fund an annual roads program, especially given the city’s rising payment to California’s state public pension system, CalPERS. South Lake Tahoe’s payment will increase from $4.7 million a year to $9.7 million by 2022, according to City Manager Nancy Kerry. It’s a financial strain that municipalities across the state are grappling to deal with.
One idea proposed by residents is using a locally-excised tax on recreational cannabis sales for road repair and rehabilitation — but Mayor Austin Sass said that money should go to the enforcement and administration of the recreational cannabis program. (City Council has not yet hashed out the details of how recreational cannabis will operate within the community, but there was general consensus that an additional local tax would be a requirement.)
“Any money left over I would like to see it go towards funding a drug task force like SLEDNET [South Lake El Dorado Narcotic Enforcement Team] to address our opioid problem.”
The multi-agency drug task force on the South Shore was dissolved in the fall of 2016 due to staffing shortages and other priorities from participating parties.
Another idea is an amusement tax on transactions like boat or snowmobile rentals, with funds going to road repair. At Tahoe Regional Young Professional’s Tahoe Town Hall on Measure C, panelist Kenny Curtzwiler proposed solely taxing tickets for Heavenly Mountain Resort’s gondola. There are differing opinions on whether a 30-year memorandum of understanding with Vail Resorts (which still has another 15 years) would currently allow ticket sales for summertime gondola rides to be subject to this tax.
“An amusement tax would need a lot of fleshing at. I certainly looked into an amusement tax, but it’s hard to forecast how much money it would raise because we don’t have those sales numbers,” said Sass. “And who knows if the voters would even support that?”
‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’
Though assistant director of public works Jim Marino is disappointed that Measure C failed, he said it’s “business as usual” for his department.
“I’ll make our fiscal request for the roads program. The council and finance department will determine what’s available and what’s allocated,” said Marino.
In the 2016-17 fiscal year, $1.6 million was allocated to roads, which translated to repaving of 2.9 centerline miles of roadway. An additional $300,000 was allotted for repairs — especially potholes — after the near record-breaking winter wreaked havoc on the roads. Of the city’s 129 centerline miles of roadway, 62 percent require reconstruction in the next 10 years, said Marino, and the cost per mile is impacted by a myriad of variables.
“Where Measure C was really key was it was dedicated annual funding, so even though council may allocate funding this year, next year is a crapshoot and the year after that,” said Marino. “It wasn’t about a dollar amount. It was about having the ability to have a dedicated annual fund that would allow us to leverage that money with utility companies and grants.”
It was estimated that Measure C would generate roughly $2.5 million annually.
“I would have never petitioned our council for a measure if there was another solution. I’ve poured through the budget for the last seven years,” said Marino. “I don’t see enough money in the budget to come out and consistently fund the roads program in the future, year in and year out, without some major, major cuts in programing or staff at the city.”
To get the funding needed, Marino estimates that it would require laying off roughly 25 employees.
“That’s a reduction in the city’s workforce of 14-15 percent. That’s huge when you’re talking about keeping the city functioning.”
In the meantime, the city will collect some funding for roads from the California gas tax increase that went into effect Nov. 1 and boosted the base excise tax from 18 cents a gallon to 30.
The city’s appropriation in the next fiscal year will amount to roughly $128,000, according to Marino, but should increase to around $320,000 the following year.
This money will be used next summer to pulverize and replace Tulare Avenue.
Other projects scheduled to begin in 2018 are the Sierra Boulevard Complete Streets Project and the Al Tahoe Safety and Mobility Enhancement Project. Both roadway projects include improvements to pedestrian and bike safety and connectivity, among other developments.
“It’s important to note that these project are paid for through federal and state grants. We match the grants at 11 percent of the total cost,” explained Marino. “We don’t have our bid yet, but Sierra Boulevard will cost around $5-6 million and Al Tahoe around $2.1-2.4 million.”
But when it comes to the city finding long-term, dedicated funding for roads, Marino said there is still a lot to figure out.
“More than anything I was disappointed with the apathetic voter turnout. That’s terrible,” said Marino. “The apathy of not caring at all is worse in my mind for our infrastructure than anything else.”
This story has been updated to show the most recent polling numbers.