By Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, Jr.
I recently was traveling north along Highland Drive from Creek Road. Between Creek Road and Fort Union, I hit two large potholes. The damage was sufficient that I had to replace two tires on my vehicle. Potholes are a fact of life in wintertime. Asphalt plants are closed and the “cold mix” used to fill these potholes can be less than effective. Our crews have worked diligently to address the most egregious potholes, including these two, but we know there are many still to be repaired throughout our community. Maintenance of streets and roads is a significant duty of local government.
In June 2016, the city contracted with Y2 Analytics to do a community survey to ascertain levels of satisfaction with city-provided services and overall city government. One of the questions asked related to taxes. Specifically, the question posed the following question:
"If Cottonwood Heights raised taxes and had $100 more from each citizen to spend to improve city services, how would you want to see the city divide your $100 among the city services?"
The top three answers were very clear. Parks and Open Space, Snow Removal and Road maintenance were ranked within pennies of each other. Two of the top three categories were related to road maintenance. I would like to think it is because our first responders are doing such a great job there is no perceived need for additional expenditures in these areas, but I tend to think citizens realized the serious need for ongoing attention to our city streets and infrastructure and the key role infrastructure plays in facilitating travel and economic development. Thus, it was not surprising road maintenance ranked so highly on the survey.
As I meet with other mayors from around the state of Utah, one of the things we all have in common is the growing demand on our limited resources to fund transportation and infrastructure needs in our communities. Of course, the specific needs vary widely from community to community. But the bottom line for all of us is the same: We have growing needs but a flat revenue source.
Tax on gasoline is the primary source of revenue for funding street and road maintenance. That single source of revenue is barely enough to do basic maintenance on our roads, much less make significant capital improvements.
In 2015, Salt Lake County placed Proposition 1 on the ballot. This proposition would have approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase earmarked for transit and transportation needs. While many recognized the need for increased revenue for maintenance of local roads, the fact that 40 percent of the increase would have gone to fund transit needs caused many to sour on the proposition.
In Cottonwood Heights, Proposition 1 failed by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. Out of 33 precincts in the city, 25 voted against Prop 1 and
eight voted in favor. It seems there is dissonance between voting down Prop 1 and the citizen survey last June reporting that road maintenance and repair ranked as a top priority for new tax dollars. Perhaps if Prop 1 were presented in a future election purely for funding local road maintenance and repair it could pass. At least the survey would suggest that it might.
Either way, it is important that we recognize as a community that there simply is not sufficient revenue to properly maintain city streets and roads over the next decade. Some roads have already deteriorated to the point where additional investment beyond basic pothole patching is not warranted. Ultimately funds will be needed to totally rebuild and resurface the road.
It is estimated that for every dollar we spend now to properly maintain roads, it saves $4 in future maintenance and repairs and $25 in reconstruction costs, according to a study by UDOT. Failure to address the problem in the near term will, in the long run, cost citizens much more in tax dollars. Reports also indicate that poorly maintained roads can cost a vehicle owner up to $600 annually in added fuel use, tire wear and extra car maintenance. I found that out the hard way recently when I purchased two new tires after hitting the two potholes.
So, what can we do? As with every other city in the state, it is likely that new revenue will be required to address the city’s infrastructure needs. What would those revenue sources be? The options available to a city are limited. They include:
Increase in property taxes – Realistically, it could take a 25-40 percent increase in property taxes to sufficiently address the city’s long-term infrastructure needs.
General Obligation Bond – The issuance of a $10-20 million GO Bond would do much to address the city’s infrastructure needs. This type of bond requires the approval of voters.
Imposition of fees – Cottonwood Heights does not presently impose any general fees on citizens. But it is a common practice in other cities. A storm water fee is the most commonly used, to address maintenance of storm water systems.
If the state were to change the law allowing a Prop 1 that only funded local road maintenance that would be another alternative, but cities do not have authority from the state to impose sales tax.
The maintenance of our roads and infrastructure is a top priority for the City Council and me, as Mayor. We are committed to finding the most economical way now, and for the long term, to fund the needs that exist and to meet the expectations expressed by our citizens that we prioritize the funding of infrastructure maintenance. To do so will require community support for finding the best funding sources to ensure the infrastructure remains reliable and functional. So, as you dodge the potholes this winter, please know we are working to not only repair them, but to find viable long-term solutions for our road and infrastructure maintenance needs.