Raise local fuel taxes? There are other moves DeKalb should make first

Does a drive around DeKalb feel like you’re continually crossing rough train tracks even where there aren’t any? Guess why.

street maintenance all expenditures

The above are actual expenditures for street maintenance. Shown are total expenditures from two primary sources for maintenance, the motor fuel tax (MFT) revenues that are shared with us by the state on a per capita basis, and local (aka “home rule”) fuel taxes.

From the chart above, it looks like MFT revenues are failing — as if we’re in recession again now. While these revenues are somewhat stagnant, the much larger problem is that the city has gotten into the habit of spending these funds on other stuff.

It’s legal, but obviously a terrible idea. City council needs to fix it before it considers a current proposal to hike the local MFT by two cents.

Here’s what happened

The next chart shows street maintenance expenditures out of DeKalb’s state MFT share only.

Maintenance charged to state MFT

Through most of the 1990s, DeKalb spent state MFT on street maintenance and nothing else. It was a policy decision the council made, and they stuck to it until fiscal 2003, when the state decided to allow municipalities to spend state MFT on additional transportation-related expenses. Since then, the city charges road salt and electricity for street lighting to this fund, a permanent loss to street maintenance of about $500,000 per year.

And another thing

DeKalb raised the local/home rule fuel tax to help pay the bond on the new police station. Instead of returning it to Capital Projects when they were finished with it, they sent it to the airport. That’s about $270,000 per year that could be going for street maintenance.

Re-allocating local fuel tax money to go to the airport shows me skewed priorities, that any tax hike our city council makes “for the streets” is a promise good only until the next council finds a new, compelling non-streets use for it.

Enough.

In stone, Baby

As I said at a recent budget meeting, DeKalb is going to have to reduce its workforce, and they can either find an orderly way to do it now, or do it later under crisis conditions.

When they do it, they should take some of the money that’s freed up and put road salt and electricity back into the General Fund so more state MFT can go for street maintenance. Then bring the local fuel tax back from the airport for same.

There should also be a goal of putting aside such-and-such percentage of general funds for street and fleet needs each year.

Make these actions part of DeKalb’s formal financial policy. It worked for the fund balance reserves. It’ll work for this.

Bonus chart: I’ve added street construction/reconstruction expenditures to maintenance expenditures. The trend line is similar. I wonder if maybe we also need to talk about how to get more grants for road projects, too. Do we have grant writers? Should we hire a lobbyist again?