Sonoma County to limit road spending cuts as state, other local funds decline
Sonoma County is preparing to put off or scale back some road maintenance projects while sustaining a core group of other upgrades to its sprawling network of rural roads, moves that officials say are the result of a multimillion-dollar funding shortfall for public works set in motion by the pandemic recession.
Officials with the county’s Transportation & Public Works Department told the Board of Supervisors last week that they expect to forgo at least $1.1 million dedicated to capital improvements due to a combination of local cuts and state funding rollbacks. Diminished state gas tax revenues make up the largest portion of those lost funds, which will result in fewer miles repaved in the county’s annual maintenance program.
Dips in tax receipts from hotel stays and revenue from the county’s special sales tax supporting road and transit upgrades also are contributing factors, and will lead to deferring some maintenance, Transportation & Public Works Director Johannes Hoevertsz told the board last week. Road projects approved last year as part of 51 miles of planned repaving will either be reduced in scope starting next year, or delayed until the next rounds of state and local money for infrastructure become available, he said.
But supervisors, with County Administrator Sheryl Bratton’s endorsement, renewed their pledge to safeguard the roughly $13 million they previously committed in general funds in each of the next two years to continue upgrades on the Bay Area’s second-largest road network, spanning 1,370 miles.
“We’re slowly chipping away, and I don’t want to go backwards,” Supervisor David Rabbit said during the board’s Tuesday virtual meeting. “We know the price of deferred maintenance, and we know how quickly we can fall into that trap if we just take the easy way out and say we’re not going to fund that, because, before you know it, we’ll be fighting that uphill battle even further.”
For more than a decade, roads within the county’s jurisdiction have ranked among the worst in the nine-county Bay Area. Years of limited investment exacerbated a maintenance backlog estimated in 2017 at $1.4 billion, according to the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The crumbling, potholed state of county roads became a hot-button political issue several years earlier, leading the Board of Supervisors by 2014 to commit discretionary dollars from the general fund — now up to $93 million — to improve the road network.
Supervisors cited the additional costs of putting off repair projects, many of which only get more expensive as conditions worsen.
“We’ve been making so much progress as a community and I’d just hate to see any of that slow down,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “Because we’re actually finally getting people to say, ‘Hey, thank you, it seems like you actually are paving some roads, you actually are getting work done.’ ”
The Transportation & Public Works Department has yet to identify which of its slated road paving projects will be scaled back or delayed while it awaits its final county spending plan this fall.
State gas tax receipts were on a precipitous decline early in the pandemic, as more people transitioned to remote work and far fewer vehicles were out on the road. The county now expects a 9% slide in those revenues, representing nearly $1 million in total funds toward roadwork and other infrastructure projects.
State officials have told the county they expect that downturn to be short-lived, according to Monique Chapman, an administrative services officer with the county’s public works department.
The tax dropoff, however, already is impacting the transportation department. Officials plan to put off the purchase of a second truck used to patch potholes and postponed the replacement of a septic tank at the department’s road yard in Cotati. Those moves were prompted by the loss of nearly $1 million from a highway users tax that funds heavy equipment and construction vehicle spending, Hoevertsz said.
Overall, the department’s projected $5.3 million drop in revenue in the 2020-21 fiscal year includes more than $2.7 million dedicated to the Sonoma County Transit bus system. But $3 million in federal CARES Act dollars, combined with savings from route suspensions during the pandemic, are helping to offset that financial strain, Hoevertsz said.
The total drop represents 10% of the department’s road and transit budget, which is supported by state, federal and local revenues derived from the county’s road tax and the levy on hotel stays.
Transportation & Public Works expects to lose just $11,500 of its general fund dollars, giving the agency a pass from the county’s order that departments prepare to cut 10% of general fund spending to fill a nearly $46 million budget gap. The general fund is supported mostly by local property taxes and represents the largest source of discretionary dollars for the county, with most going to administrative and public safety departments.
The public works department is not expecting any layoffs among its 170 full-time workers, including 133 who will continue to perform road maintenance.
“If we lost staff, that would definitely be an impact for how we deliver projects,” Hoevertsz said in an interview. “We are very fortunate that have a department … with minimal contributions from the general fund.”
Hoevertsz estimated the department still has a decade’s worth of projects ahead of it, including work on washouts and other damage from fires and major floods in 2017 and 2019. The department is exploring a plan to borrow funds from its own liability account to help move some disaster work forward.
The county may also look to use some of the $149 million wildfire settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric to move those projects ahead as it waits on reimbursement from FEMA once the work is completed. Local road advocates want a large portion of those settlement dollars to be invested in road repair.
“The settlement amount is based on damages sustained to the county’s infrastructure due either directly to the 2017 fire or damages caused indirectly by debris removal and reconstruction when overloaded trucks ripped up many roads,” Save Our Sonoma Roads said this week in a written statement. “We think the vast majority should be spent on road and infrastructure repairs.”
Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair, said she recognized the challenges ahead for the county’s infrastructure network based on reduced revenues, but vowed to continue making headway in the years ahead.
“Amazing staff, trying to do it all on a shoestring and with a lot of heart and soul,” Gorin said last week. “But I will reaffirm my commitment to continue that progress on our roads, because, indeed, I think almost all the roads … need great attention.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @kfixler.