Saturday, January 24, 2015

Insanity -- streetlight fee on water bills instead of gas tax

If there was ever a perfect time to raise the gas tax to pay for roadway infrastructure, this is it.
Instead, Salem proposes to make residents pay for streetlights on their water bills, even though the vast majority of the streetlights in Salem are for the benefit of automobiles.

Streetlights don't squeeze funding for road repairs: sprawl and foolish attempts to keep up the growth Ponzi scheme are what squeeze funding for road repairs. Shifting the burden of road repairs  -- and streetlights are most definitely part of the road system – onto residents who may not even own or use a car is just more evidence that City Hall has been captured by victims of carhead, the affliction that impairs logical thought and especially decreases or eliminates empathy for persons not merged into a cyborg with their own car.

City of Salem Considers New Streetlight Fee (Photo)
// City of Salem

Keeping Salem's more than 10,550 streetlights operating has squeezed funding for road repairs.

What's the crux of the problem? Streetlights and road repairs in Salem both depend on a shrinking pool of gasoline tax revenues. Money for basic road pavement maintenance has largely evaporated.

"We will, at some point, have to decide on whether we want to fix the sidewalks or streets because we won't be able to do both," said Mark Becktel, the city's parks and transportation services manager.

City staff have proposed a solution: a streetlight fee that would be added to city water and sewer bills. The proposed fee -- amounting to $2.80 per month for a single family household --would create a dedicated funding source for operating the city's streetlights and allow more gasoline taxes to be used for road repairs.

In February, Salem City Council is expected to hold a public hearing on the streetlight fee. The fee was first brought before council in July 2013, but councilors asked staff to come back with more information.

Each year, the cost of electricity and maintenance for streetlights consumes approximately $1.4 million of the city's $8.9 million allocation of gasoline taxes.

Meanwhile, street maintenance has sustained the brunt of recent budget cutting, losing all general fund support in the current fiscal year. The Public Works Streets Fund has had a recurring shortfall of $1 million since the end of fiscal year 2013-14.

Revenue from the streetlight fee would pay for electricity and streetlight maintenance, as well as upgrading city-owned streetlights to light-emitting diode lights, better known as LEDs.

About 68 percent of streetlights in Salem are city-owned; the rest are owned by utilities. Portland General Electric has already completed the conversion of its utility-owned streetlights to LEDs, which are more energy efficient than the traditional high-pressure sodium lights they replaced.

The city has met with neighborhood groups, as well as the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, and explained the rationale behind the proposed streetlight fee.

City officials maintain that using the existing utility billing system is the most cost-effective way to implement a fee for service.

Revenue collected from the fee would be placed in a streetlight fund dedicated solely for the operation and expansion of the streetlight system. Gas tax funds, previously used for streetlights, could be directed to street maintenance.

City officials, however, said another funding source for street maintenance will ultimately need to be found. The streetlight fee will stabilize funding for street maintenance for about three years, giving the city time to devise a solution to the funding crunch.

Without the streetlight fee, the city faces deep program cuts, including reductions of staff and services, by fiscal 2016-17.

The gravity of the city's street maintenance problems may not be obvious to casual observers. Main arterial streets are in good-to-fair condition, but many neighborhood streets haven't had preventative maintenance in 15 or 20 years, Becktel said. No pavement maintenance on residential streets was performed in 2014, other than emergency repairs.

Work crews completed only about 6 lane miles of pavement overlays and skin patches on collector and arterial streets in 2014. That compares to the city's 12-year-average of 11.4 lane miles.

Past attempts in Salem to improve transportation funding by imposing a new fee haven't succeeded.

In 2002, Salem City Council passed a "streetscape utility fee" that would have provided funding for streetlights, sidewalks and street trees.

Salem's business community found the streetscape fee unacceptable and mounted a political campaign to overturn it. An initiative petition sent the proposal to voters and it was repealed in 2003.

Becktel said the current streetlight fee proposal stands a better chance of succeeding than the 2002 proposal because it's narrowly focused on streetlights.

"We're not taking on sidewalks, streetlights and street trees all in one fee," he said. "It's just communicating to people that we can't afford to pay for streetlights out of gas tax anymore."
City staff have also addressed several concerns about the version of the streetlight fee presented to city council in 2013.

For example, city staff have recommended expanding a low-income credit on water and sewer bills to offset the fee's cost. About 500 low-income households in Salem would end up paying a little less on city utility bills.

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