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Drop in property taxes for King County Roads over the past four years contributes to further service reduction

In April of this year the state Legislature had the needed votes for bills granting counties the authority to seek desperately-needed transit and road revenues, but at the last hour lawmakers failed to bring those bills to the floor for consideration.

This inaction, coupled with a 44 percent drop over the last four years in the value of property assessments in unincorporated King County, forced the King County Roads Services Division to issue layoff notices this week to 54 essential roads workers. An additional 11 vacant positions will also be cut for a total reduction of 65 road jobs. The reduction, effective early next year, will be reflected in the 2013 Executive Proposed Budget to be delivered in September

“We said at the time there would be consequences if the state didn’t free us to solve this funding crisis, and now we’re seeing them,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "The current system for funding local roads across the state hasn’t been revisited in decades, and it no longer works. I am working with members of the County Council and local cities on new funding options we can bring to the next legislative session.”

“As home values have declined, the funds that King County can collect for maintaining county roads has declined significantly as well,” said King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who represents Northeast King County. “At the same time, road costs are increasing, and the result is substantially less funding for road maintenance and repair in our large unincorporated areas. Three years ago, we had 354,000 residents paying into the road fund, but due to city annexations, the number is down to 234,000 now, and that change has contributed greatly to this funding crisis.”

“Rural roads are a key part of our infrastructure – and a key responsibility of County government. Unfortunately, we need the Legislature to partner with us to find an adequate funding source,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott who chairs the Budget & Fiscal Management Committee. “Present circumstances mean substantial effects – including significant concerns for public safety.”

By 2013, the average homeowner in most areas of unincorporated King County will pay roughly $90 less per year for road services than they did in 2011. That’s a big blow to the county’s road fund, considering 60 percent of its budget comes from property taxes.

The County Road Fund is supported mostly by the local property tax, through a separate Roads levy limited to $2.25 per thousand dollars of assessed value. Under the state Growth Management Act, the annexation of urban unincorporated areas into cities is leaving a dramatically reduced base of property tax revenues for County roads in the unincorporated areas. Yet the county has not seen a proportional drop in its responsibility for repairing, maintaining, and replacing roads, bridges, and culverts, and is still responsible for 1,500 miles of roadway.

Over the past four years, a combination of annexations, lower property valuations, and declines in gas tax revenues has led to a 25 percent decline in the Road Fund, from $128 million to $96 million. As a result, the County’s Road Services Division will have eliminated about 200 positions, or about one-third of its entire workforce, since 2010.

With the continued drop in the revenues that support its work, King County Roads is eliminating 17.5 administrative and supervisory positions to streamline internal services to match the smaller organization, with resulting delays in some policy and planning work. With engineers still needed for large construction projects, including the South Park Bridge and Novelty Hill Road, most of the remaining reductions are occurring in roads maintenance.

The loss of road funding is taking a major toll on county roads.

In recent years, pothole repairs have been cut by nearly half. By 2013, pothole filling and patching could be reduced by nearly 65 percent.

The County’s road overlay program is shrinking; this year, just 11 miles of deteriorated roadway will be repaved. During the next biennium, the County will likely have no local funding for paving unless new revenue sources become available.

This past winter season, about 20 percent less snow and ice removal was performed due to a lack of staffing. Plowing and sanding may be reduced by an additional one-third this coming season depending on the availability of resources.

This overall lack of attention will lead to further deterioration of county roadways. Eventually the lack of preservation and maintenance will force speed reductions, bridge and lane closures and the need to turn some rural roads to gravel.

Roads in the county’s rural area are some of the oldest in the system, and are the most vulnerable to falling trees and debris, floods, and snow storms, as roads run alongside rivers and streams, through heavily wooded areas and at higher elevations.

 

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