Eugene Weekly : News : 10.16.08

Pothole Politics
Tax hits homes, won’t fix worst first
By Alan Pittman

The $36 million property tax to fix streets, Measure 20-145, represents a giant shift of the tax burden from big box stores to homeowners. 

Last year the city was considering a per-parking-space fee to generate about the same revenue for roads by more equitably charging based on traffic creation.  

20-145 won’t fix this

The parking space fee would have charged a Wal-Mart or other big box store (assessed at about $5 million with 700 spaces) about $49,000 a year. But the property tax bond measure would charge the big box store only $3,000 a year. That’s a 94 percent tax cut.

Under this property tax alternative pushed by the Chamber of Commerce, the tax burden on homeowners almost doubles to make up for the huge tax break for Wal-Mart and other big boxes. 

About 70 percent of local property taxes is residential. The city has given many businesses millions of dollars a year in property tax breaks.

The property tax also does not consider the fact (which studies have shown and city officials have said) that almost all road wear is caused not by cars but by heavy trucks. The city has refused to consider a truck-factor fee for businesses to fairly assess that cost. 

Another equity issue with the property tax is that people who bike, walk or bus to work will subsidize road damage by people who drive. More environmentally friendly commuters may even pay more than sprawl commuters because they paid a premium for higher-assessed houses in the city center.

Not Worst First

At 5th and Olive in downtown Eugene, the right turn arrow ends in a deep pothole.

A voter might think that the $36 million tax increase to repair streets would fix that obvious pothole and others like it. But it won’t.

“Streets are not prioritized on a ‘worst first’ basis,” according to a Sept. 25 memo from Eugene Public Works staff to the City Council on street repair.

The 5th and Olive hole isn’t on the 32-street project list the city created for the ballot measure. Just how the city chose the list is a mystery. Eugene Public Works spokesman Eric Jones declined to provide a street by street explanation of why each of the 32 projects was chosen.

The Sept. 25 memo states that the city uses a triage-like method that does not repair the worst streets first, but instead prioritizes fixing a street that is in better shape “before it deteriorates” and requires more costly repairs. 

“The most effective time to fix streets is when they begin to show signs of deterioration (e.g., small cracks), not when they are in advanced deterioration,” emailed Jones. 

But this policy conflicts with public complaints about hazardous potholes damaging cars and jolting drivers and with the city’s own rhetoric around the need for the bond measure. A $17,000 city “informational” mailing on the ballot measure, for example, features a picture of a pothole on the cover that the measure, in fact, would not target.

The city did target smooth Chad Drive for some much in demand repaving funds this past summer, even though the relatively new street had no potholes. Why? 

According to Jones, the repaving was part of a project to connect Chad to the Gateway Mall freeway interchange. The $400,000 overlay was needed to accommodate a planned “increase in vehicle and truck traffic,” Jones wrote. 

 Freeway interchange projects in the Gateway area have been criticized by environmentalists for promoting urban sprawl and pollution that leads to global warming.

The Register-Guard, which has been unsuccessfully marketing a large business park on Chad for years, will likely see an increase in its property value due to the interchange connection. But unlike the city’s assessments for fixing streets for homeowners in the south hills and elsewhere, the city decided not to assess the Guard for the street improvement. 

Although most of the worst streets in Eugene are older, higher traffic streets in South Eugene, the city chose to not repair many of those streets with the bond money in favor of trying to attract votes in outlying areas. Geographic distribution was a consideration in choosing the repair list, according to Jones. 

Many councilors agreed with that political approach to attract votes. The repair list “should be geographically dispersed,” said Councilor Alan Zelenka at a July 16 meeting. 

Although the city distributed the repairs across the city, it did not give bike funding its fair share. According to the city, about 9 percent of local commuting is by bike, but bike paths will get only 1 percent of the bond measure funding.