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Commissioner: Residents should have input into tax, road repairs

The city of Springfield might ask voters to approve a quarter-percent income tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot to repair streets, and one city commissioner wants to make sure residents have a say in where construction takes place.

City commissioners held a first reading Tuesday and will vote July 22 whether to place the five-year income tax increase on the ballot. It would generate about $3.75 million per year and be earmarked for road repairs.

If voters approve it, the city’s income tax would increase from 2 percent to 2.25 percent. The current rate costs someone making $30,000 about $600 annually. Under the higher rate, it would cost a person making $30,000 about $675 annually.

Resident must be able to participate in the process of selecting which streets are repaired, City Commissioner Joyce Chilton said.

“In my way of thinking, if I’m going to vote for this, I’d like to see something done in my area,” she said, “and I think citizens feel the same way.”

The city repaired about half of its neighborhood streets throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, completing about 10 years of a 20-year program.

Under that previous program, the city was divided into quadrants and each section would see road repairs once every four years, but the program was stopped in 2008 during the Great Recession.

Mayor Warren Copeland recommended having residents from each quadrant meet with the engineering department to discuss the repairs before they are scheduled. They haven’t decided how the program will work or where repairs would be done, Copeland said, but he’d like to resume a plan similar to the previous neighborhood streets program.

The city has paved some roads in recent years, but virtually no neighborhood streets in the past five years. While income tax revenues have increased in the past few years, state cuts and lower revenues from other sources have kept city budgets flat, according to officials.

The cost for completely rebuilding a street is about $1 million for every two miles, but not every street needs that extensive of repairs, according to city officials.

This year, the city is spending about $500,000 to pave as many as four streets, including portions of Fremont, Santa Monica, Lexington and Western avenues. The city is also using state money to pave a piece of Grand Avenue.

Commissioner Dan Martin wanted to make sure the money will be used for streets, not for operating costs.

“I wouldn’t want to see a situation where it starts covering operating costs for the public works division or something like that,” Martin said.

The money from the tax increase will be restricted solely for street improvements, according to the legislation.

The city hasn’t asked voters for additional tax money since the special police levy passed in 1990, which pays for about 24 police officers. It was renewed permanently in 2001.

Rev. Linda Sue Stampley, a Springfield resident, asked commissioners why the increase wasn’t included on a recent half-percent income tax renewal last November.

“It looks like we’re just going back after the taxpayers again,” Stampley said. “How many more are you going to come up with?”

It’s difficult to mix a renewal ballot issue with new money, so the city decided to ask voters to keep things the same, Copeland said.

Road repairs are the biggest thing he hears about from residents, the mayor said, and he believes it’s a good reason to ask for a tax increase. He doesn’t see asking voters again for more money, if the increase passes.

“It’s a very specific tax for a very specific need,” Copeland said.

Springfield resident David Sanford asked commissioners if they could dip into the reserve fund to repair streets, but Copeland said the money is there in case another recession hits.

The city projects it will have a $1.3 million deficit this year, which will be paid for out of its $3.8 million reserves. The city used its rainy day money to pay a nearly $877,000 shortfall in 2013, when the reserves were more than 10 percent of the city’s overall budget. This year’s shortfall will reduce the reserves to more than 6 percent of the budget.

The commission’s goal is for the reserves to equal about 10 percent of the budget.

Resident Bruce Williams believes the city will take a hit if it doesn’t include residents in the process of selecting streets for repairs.

“I don’t want to see this side of town be neglected like it has for several years,” Williams said.

He also asked Commissioner Kevin O’Neill about borrowing money to fix neighborhood streets. In recent years, O’Neill has asked city commissioners and staff members to consider borrowing up to $5 million to repair neighborhood streets.

“It was still on the table. We were going to discuss that,” O’Neill said. “This seems to be more fair. We don’t have to pay interest on it if the electorate wants to give it to us. Rest assured, if for some reason this doesn’t pass, I’ll be back asking the same questions again because we still have to fix our streets.”

Springfield resident June Foster, who lives on the corner of Fremont and Clifton avenues, called the streets problem a “win-lose situation” because most of the damage is caused by the weather.

“I believe that the state or the government should pay for it and not the citizens,” Foster said. “Honestly, I may not vote for it, then again there are a lot of streets that are bad that I think need to be fixed.”

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