A ballot measure on a proposed $30 license tab fee to finance much-needed repairs to Yakima’s ailing streets was expected to go to voters in April. But now, that may change.
Several City Council members are considering moving the measure to the August primary, which would save the estimated $70,000 that an April special election would cost.
But there is some uncertainty over the effect of listing the measure on the same ballot that could potentially include three City Council races.
Seats held by Mayor Micah Cawley, and Councilmen Bill Lover and Dave Ettl are all up for grabs this fall.
“There was some concern that it could interfere with local politics. But in these times, in my opinion, you can’t weigh those issues against saving the people money,” Cawley said. “We need money for our streets, so we should save money if we can.”
While every council member agrees that many streets are in bad shape after years of largely cosmetic repairs, none gives the car-tab fee good odds of passing.
“Right now, I’d say it’s 50-50,” Ettl said.
Yakima voters last approved raising money for road work in 1986. Since then, they rejected street improvement bonds in 1994 and 1996.
Council members mentioned those votes several times while discussing the current proposal at council meetings.
“We know it wasn’t necessarily the most popular choice,” Ettl said.
But it is the best option the council had, he said. “Yakima — there are only so many options for roads.”
If the voters approve the fee, the city would use the annual revenue to cover debt payments on about $19 million worth of bonds. City officials expect the estimated fee would bring in about $1.5 million annually.
Selling bonds up front would let the city tackle a list of 54 high-priority projects in three to four years, starting in 2014. The city also plans to sell bonds worth $5 million this spring to pay for an additional 12 projects that would get started later this year. The smaller bond will be paid for with money from the general fund.
The two bonds would let the city fix many of its most neglected streets, said Joe Rosenlund, manager of Yakima’s street and traffic operations.
Under state law, the council has authority to implement a $20 car-tab fee. But council members rejected that partly because it wouldn’t raise enough money to deal with the city’s backlog of street projects, and partly on principle.
“It’s still the people’s choice,” Ettl said.
While council members said they haven’t heard from many constituents about the proposed fee, everyone said they’ve heard a lot about the poor condition of some city streets.
“I get calls to my home saying there’s a hole on such-and-such a street,” Councilwoman Maureen Adkison said. “People do recognize the fact that the roads are falling apart, and I don’t think they realize how expensive it is to repair.”
Connecting the scope of the problem to the cost of fixing it will be critical to getting voters to approve the measure, she said.
The city, including council members, “can provide information, but it can’t promote it,” City Manager Tony O’Rourke said.
Any campaign for or against the proposed fee would have to be run by private citizens. No one has stepped forward so far, according to several council members.
One issue that a campaign will have to address is the debt payment gap. The fee sunsets after 10 years, but the city will likely have to make debt payments on the bonds for 20 years.
The city will have to ask voters to re-approve the fee in 10 years or find some other way to make the payments, O’Rourke said.
That will force the city to deliver on its promises, Cawley said. “The sunset is there for accountability and that’s important.”