One cost dominated virtually every spending discussion from Huntersville to Statesville when FY 2016-17 were being formed: Transportation and the growing need to generate revenue for local and regional highway improvements.
That need has resulted in at least one tax increase, as well as the expectation of bond issue referendums within the next several years.
“Transportation and traffic is the No. 1 citizen complaint in every citizen survey we have conducted,” said Mooresville Town Manager Erskine Smith.
Huntersville Commissioner Melinda Bales agreed. “We all have to plan for additional population growth and the impact that growth will have on our local infrastructure.”
Cornelius commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a 6 percent tax increase while creating a dedicated transportation capital reserve fund.
“This budget with the tax hike makes sense and is necessary to plan for future committed projects,” said Commissioner Jim Duke.
However, many local officials also feel the costs for transportation projects is being shifted more and more from the state to local government, a move they are reluctant to endorse.
“The state took over road building and maintenance during the depression, and local municipalities have been responsible for municipal road maintenance” said Mooresville’s Smith, “but the state’s Powell Funding has not increased significantly to provide enough revenue to help in all of our maintenance needs, much less new needs. Now with the cap in the state gas tax, the revenue stream is getting smaller.”
To assist with the town’s transportation needs, Mooresville has appropriated $500,000 to $750,000 in its operating budget within a line item called Traffic Task Force. This enables town staff to complete smaller traffic improvement projects, such as adding signals, signage or small widening projects that might otherwise have to wait under the state DOT’s funding formulas.
The need has affected personnel decisions. Davidson, for example, included $58,250 in its 2017 budget to hire a new employee so the current planner can focus on transportation.
However, the path to collecting those additional funds is not always easy. In April, Mooresville’s staff had proposed a $20 per vehicle tax plan, whereby each registered auto owner with a Mooresville address would pay $20 per vehicle to create revenue for road repairs.
Town commissioners immediately balked. “That idea was DOA upon arrival,” said Mayor Miles Atkins.”The feedback from the board is that they were not interested.”
However the authority to collect such a vehicle tax was established by the state more than 20 years ago, and some towns, such as Cornelius, have collected $10 from each registered automobile owner in the town since 1996, with the costs listed on resident’s annual county property tax bill.
At least one commissioner, Dave Gilroy, who opposed the town’s tax increase, says those annual fees “should be included when comparing our town tax rate to others without such a fee.”
For its part, the state DOT claims, in its annual report, that 2015 was “a milestone year because it saw a number of major reforms aimed at modernizing and stabilizing the funding available for transportation improvements across the state.”
Local officials did not appear to be overly impressed.
“The DOT must get its act together to provide quality upkeep of roads and streets,” said Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Woody Washam. “After all, they collect road and gas taxes for purposes like this.”
In the meantime, town residents should expect to see more discussions about tax rates and transportation bond issue referendums during the next several years in order to move forward on transportation needs.
While bond issues can certainly provide some valuable road funds, they come with a big caution sign, said Cornelius’ Washam. “This is debt that ultimately must be paid back.”
Dave Vieser is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.