Bainbridge Council wants to deliver results before asking voters to pass road repair bonds

Citizens of Bainbridge Island have clamored for major road repairs for years, but if they want those fixes they may have to pay for them with additional taxes.

But the City Council isn’t ready to ask for the money yet.

The majority of council agreed during the first discussion of the item at its study session Wednesday that before it can ask citizens for an estimated $9 million in the form of a voter bond that it will have to earn their support.

“At some point,” Mayor Bob Scales said, “I think we will have to go to the voters, and we need to have a plan in place, and a track record of producing projects.”

With the city still stuck in a financial bind, alternative funding sources such as grants and voter bonds will become more important in funding capital projects, including major road repairs, city officials said.

The bonds would pay for a number of road repairs, including Rockaway Beach Road and Wing Point Way, and non-motorized improvements to portions of the Core 40, a series of main arterials needing work to support bicyclists and pedestrians. Some of the transportation projects under the city’s Capital Facilities Plan are scheduled to begin in 2011, but those may be delayed should the council decide not to pursue a voter-bond election this year.

City Finance Director Elray Konkel indicated that voter bonds, and grants to a lesser extent, represent the sole sources of funding for the projects, some of which have been on the city agenda for nearly a decade.

“We really just can’t do projects,” he said, if the bonds aren’t approved. “For lack of voted bonds, we’ll keep delaying projects until the economy returns to higher levels or make more cuts to make room for it.”

The money for these projects represents larger-scale road reconstruction, not routine maintenance such as street sweeping, spot paving and fixing potholes. The city uses revenue from the gas tax and parking taxes to fund those operations.

For three years now, the city hasn’t been financially able to fund road projects. But, Scales said, even when these projects were funded, when he was previously on the council, only about a third of them were ever finished. He and other councilors agreed that before the city can begin its quest for a voter bond it first has to show it is capable of delivering projects and then hold public meetings to learn about what the community wants.

Councilor Debbi Lester suggested using ward meetings to get councilors out on the street to gauge the public interest on such a bond down the road.

“I think it’s our turn as new council people to go out and get a sense of what this community wants,” she said. “I’m not comfortable operating strictly within this body of seven.” The council will discuss the issue again at its next study session, April 7.

City Engineer Chris Wierzbicki implored the council to pursue a comprehensive transportation plan, which conjoins efforts to improve roads and non-motorized options, rather than just going to the voters to fund an amalgam of road projects.

“I don’t think what we have in the capital facilities program is really a comprehensive look at transportation projects,” he said.

Wierzbicki said it would take about six months to create such a plan, which would be something to consider during the next biennial budget discussions.

Council also saw the need to tie transportation projects together. When a major reconstruction of a road is performed, non-motorized improvements need to be done then, rather than coming back again later as would be the case in a series of individual projects.

“If you touch a road, you want to do it all because it’s not cost efficient to go back,” said Councilor Kim Brackett.

The city has requested voter bonds only once. In 2001, more than 67 percent of residents voted in favor of using more than $8 million for the city to purchase open spaces, according to Kitsap County election records.

But voters have shown some reluctancy to pass bonds since the decline of the economy. Last November, voters narrowly passed a $42 million bond for the school district to rebuild Wilkes Elementary School after rejecting a similar measure in May. Bainbridge Island Fire Department also received approval from the public on a levy to help staff extra stations.

But the city, because of its public perception, could be different.

“I’m sure there will be people who question whether we should take care of roads out of current cash,” Konkel said. But, given the economic conditions, municipalities – state and national – have been forced to use alternative funding sources for major road repair.

Despite the need for these repairs, some councilors question whether the public is willing to trust the city at this point.

“I don’t believe that the appetite is there to produce an $8 million bond for transportation or anything else the city is doing,” Scales said.

Capital Road Projects

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