Gila County needs to spend at least $32 million expanding and maintaining its nearly 800 miles of paved and dirt roads, which means the county desperately hopes voters will extend a half-cent sales tax surcharge for another 20 years, county officials and consultants told an intent group of voters at the Democratic Women’s Club meeting this week.
Voters approved the half-cent surcharge 20 years ago and now it produces an extra $3 million annually to build and maintain roads. The county gets another $3 million annually from gas tax money. If voters approve the extension in August, the county will get half of that $3 million and the cities in the county will get the other half. For the past 20 years, the county kept all the money.
“The costs far exceed our available revenue,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin.
The proposed tax extension will show up on the August primary ballot. Independent voters on the early voter roll won’t get a primary ballot in the mail unless they ask for a ballot from one party or the other. Anyone who doesn’t vote by mail can show up at the polls on election day.
The presentation included a list of projects costing an estimated $166 million. If voters extend the tax, the county will have $104 million to spend on those projects. Without the tax, the amount available will dwindle to $74 million.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans attended the session as well, and spoke in support of the extension, now that the towns will get a cut. Northern Gila County provides the great bulk of the sales tax revenue for the county, but the county in the past 20 years has spent most of the surcharge on streets in the Globe area. The distressed mining towns in south county have many old roads in need of constant repair and upgrade.
However, this extension would give Payson about $500,000 to $700,000 a year for use on its road network.
During the recession, the state diverted most of the gas tax money that used to go to counties and towns to state agencies like the Department of Public Safety. Both the county and Payson virtually eliminated even routine maintenance of their road networks, even though studies show that skimping on maintenance like chip sealing costs much more in the end.
“There’s a realization that you can’t have a good road from here to there and then have the next stretch full of potholes,” said Evans.
He noted that the state continues to favor urban areas when it comes to doling out money for roads, even though roads like Highway 87 and Highway 260 mostly serve the needs of those same urban residents.
Evans noted that when the Arizona Department of Transportation cut its five-year spending plan for highways by $350 million, $175 million of that took the form of cancelling projects in rural areas. Because of the cancellation of the Lion Springs section of Highway 260 just outside of Star Valley, Gila County wound up absorbing half of the rural cutbacks.
As a result, the county and towns need the money from the sales tax extension even more, said Evans. Moreover, since out-of-towners pay the bulk of the sales tax in Payson, the extension will ensure those visitors help pay for the roads they need.
Supervisor Martin said the sales tax extension will likely pay for the eventual paving of both the Control Road running between Pine and Christopher Creek and the long dirt road into Young.
The bulk of the money will go into maintaining the existing system. Years of skipped maintenance has left many roads in a “failed” condition, with potholes, erosion and cracked pavement. Long neglect of maintenance can require the replacement of whole roadbeds rather than simple patching.