Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Baker City's Street Maintenance Needs Increase Faster Than Revenue

By Pat Caldwell


Framed against the excess of data packed into Baker City's recent audit report, the short paragraph regarding city streets is one easily overlooked by even the most discerning of readers.

Yet the implications of those few short sentences could be long-lasting and, in reality, signal the first tones of a warning bell.

The report - crafted by Guyer and Associates - was reviewed earlier this month by the Baker City Council. In the report, the status of Baker City's streets was addressed in a short, concise paragraph.

". . . Street fund resources (mainly state gas tax and 18.47 percent of property taxes) are not sufficient to maintain the City's street in their current condition. If the city's streets are not properly maintained (i.e. overlays, chip sealing, fog sealing, crack sealing) they will continue to deteriorate . . ."

While street maintenance issues may not be a news flash to longtime residents - the overall condition of the city's streets has been declining gradually for several years - the audit paragraph underlines in stark fashion a challenge that's not confined to Baker City but is a problem across the state and the nation.

A January report by the Oregon League of Cities illustrated that infrastructure renovations - including streets - remains a significant problem for many cities across Oregon.

"Street and road maintenance is definitely one of the challenges," Chris Fick, of the League of Oregon Cities (LOC) said.

The LOC report, dubbed "Doing more with less" showed that while many cities are beginning to boost spending on infrastructure repairs after years of delays, the backlog on improvements remains lengthy.

According to the report, 67 percent of the "incorporated population" in Oregon placed a $2 billion price tag on current infrastructure renovation endeavors. Current revenues, the report said, are not adequate to complete all of the needed repairs.

"It's been an area that we've known there have been a backlog of needs," Fick said.

Baker City's efforts to repair streets is fueled by monies from several sources. The lion's share of the street maintenance budget is from state gas tax revenues and local property taxes. Some federal dollars - in the form of Surface Transportation funds shifted down from the state - are thrown into the street budget as well.

Yet gas tax revenue often fluctuates - because of high gas prices or the growing, decisive influence of more fuel-efficient cars - and increases in property taxes are limited by Oregon's Measure 5.

The League of Oregon Cities report showed that general fund revenue of 50 Oregon cities declined by 2.11 percent between 2008 and 2012. Baker City Public Works Director Michelle Owen conceded that there are a number of infrastructure projects that need attention. However, lack of funds means city crews will only be able to tackle a certain number of repair ventures each year.

"That doesn't mean we don't make the effort. We try a bit of everything. We are doing more with less," she said.

Owen said Baker City is more fortunate than many cities because of long-term planning framed in the 1980s regarding infrastructure. That planning created a cushion, of sorts, regarding needed infrastructure upgrades.

"We had a focused effort (in the 1980s) on street maintenance. Most communities don't have that," she said.

That effort peaked, in a sense, in 1997 when, according to the city's annual survey of all city streets, 56 miles of the city's network of 56.22 miles of paved streets were rated as being either good (50.72 miles) or very good (5.33 miles).

Just 0.17 of a mile of paved street was rated as fair, and no street was rated as poor or very poor.

In the ensuing 15 years, though, the mileage of streets rated as fair has risen almost every year. In 2012 (the 2013 report will be released soon), 20.57 miles was rated as fair, and 1 mile as poor.

The 20.57-mile total of fair streets is the second-highest since the city started the annual survey in 1989, behind only 2010, when 20.71 miles was rated as fair.

Now, Owen said, the city is stuck in a stalemate regarding the ongoing war on infrastructure repairs.

"We are not winning the battle, but we're not losing," she said.

The solution, of course, revolves around elected leaders finding, then selling it to voters, some kind of revenue stream to help kick-start an in-depth infrastructure renovation program.

"A street usage fee - that is something the council could consider. At this point they have not felt motivated to add a new fee. I understand that," Owen said.

Owen also pointed out that she is not advocating any kind of new tax or fee.

"We don't make policy. We implement it," she said. "I'm not going to be the one to mention another fee to anyone."

Other costs connected to street repairs continue to go up, Owen said.

In a 2006 city report, the cost of maintaining a very good street in that condition stood at 50 cents per square yard. Now, it costs about $1.60 a yard, Owen said.

"It doesn't get any cheaper. Asphalt costs are not going down," she said.

Owen said the city will continue to vigorously address as many street repairs as funding will allow. Still, that effort is only a stopgap, not a long-term solution.

"We will continue to pursue whatever funding options we can. I don't have a miracle solution to it. We do all we can with the dollars we have," she said.