The bill for years of neglect is about to come due, and the Vancouver City Council and taxpayers are starting to consider how to pay it.
In anticipation of difficult decisions they will face in the coming year, council members have started discussions about the city's streets. Last week, they were told they will need to come up with about $6.75 million a year to properly maintain the city's roadways. More will be required to actually improve the streets, which increasingly are falling short of generally accepted standards. The city has identified about $520 million in street needs, the bulk of which involve bringing old county roads up to urban standards, a need created by an ever-expanding urban area. Areas that once could be well-served by old farm-to-market roads now require modern streets to handle the housing developments that have encroached upon those lands.
Given these austere times, that might be enough to have councilors searching under the couch cushions and digging into piggy banks for a solution — if only such answers could be so easily found. Instead, a council that already has cut city staff by about 20 percent is considering measures such a sales-tax increase, a license-tab fee increase, or a special levy to help pay for road improvements.
Therein lies the dilemma.
"The city has taken significant steps to contain the pace of growth in all our costs over the past several years," City Manager Eric Holmes said. "The current effort to examine our street operations is geared toward maximizing the results we can accomplish with the resources we have. A combination of wage freezes, furloughs, layoffs, combined with restructuring of health-care coverage and premium sharing, have been ingredients in our cost-containment efforts."
We feel the city's pain. And yet we implore leaders to understand the pain felt by taxpayers. When is comes to street improvements, like all other governmental programs, the question is a matter of priorities. For a city government, roads arguably rank behind only public safety — police and fire — on the scale of importance. That doesn't mean that police and fire protection receives all the money it deems necessary and then other services fight over the scraps; it means that public safety and then roads should be given the most weight. Unkept streets can be a safety concern for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists, and they can be an economic concern for businesses that rely upon the transportation of goods or the ability of customers to reach their store.
The decisions ultimately will be influenced by the public. "From my perspective, it's important to lay out the challenges of our community and learn what their expectations are," Mayor Tim Leavitt said. Input on what level of street improvements the public considers important should go a long way toward determining the city's course of action. This has been a problem created by decades of neglect, and it will require many years to effectively create and implement a solution. Along the way, other items that fall under the auspices of the city are going to face cuts.
Governments always can find a reason to plead for more money; there always is something that needs fixing or can be improved, something that officials can argue is crucial to the livability of the area. But those fixes, if they truly are important to the community, need to be accomplished through prioritization and through cutting back somewhere else. Streets are important, but in this regard they are no different from other services provided by the city.