Voters to decide 4-cent gas tax

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer July 15, 2014 08:33 pm

Brookings City councilors will put a gas tax measure to the voters next May, after debating about even forging ahead with it, considering they are missing one critical element of the puzzle: how much gasoline is sold in Brookings every year.

That missing information makes it difficult to figure out how much tax to charge to garner the $300,000 revenue needed each year to replace and repair roads throughout the city.

The council eventually decided to craft a ballot title that will ask voters for approval of a 4-cent per gallon tax; if the measure is approved, it would sunset in three years. Money generated would eliminate the System Replacement Fee that people pay for road construction on their water and sewer bill.

The council vote approved the motion, 3-2, with councilors Bill Hamilton and Brent Hodges voting against it.

By repealing the SRF — it increased July 1 by four cents to $2.98 a month — residents will save almost $36 a year. Drivers with vehicles that get even the worst gas mileage will pay less than that in fuel taxes a year, said Councilman Kelly McClain.

“I took the (Mayor Ron) Hedenskog family,” McClain said, citing examples. “He drives 8,000 miles a year and gets 20 miles per gallon. That’s $12 a year in gas taxes. Then, my dad. He drives 6,000 miles a year in a car that gets 15 mpg. That’s $12, too.

“And then myself, with two big V-8s,” he added. “I drive 12,000 miles a year — I’m a real estate agent — and get 10 mpg. I’ll pay $36 — the same as the System Replacement Fee.”

To generate the needed revenue with SRFs would require doubling that part of the water bill, to $5.96 a month, or $72 a year.

Figuring the revenue

The SRF currently generates about $131,000 a year toward road repair, and the city estimates it needs at least $300,000 a year to keep pace with the city’s new 10-year street-replacement plan.

Councilors initially believed a 3-cent tax might generate that money — until they realized there’s no way to find out how much gas is sold in Brookings.

Retail gas stations say it’s proprietary information. The state Department of Transportation, which collects state fuel taxes of 30 cents per gallon itself, claims it has no idea how many gallons are sold throughout the state. That agency gets its figures from wholesale gasoline sellers, and how the fuel is distributed from there is unknown.

“What I have is anecdotal, based on estimates people think,” McClain said. “They think Fred Meyer gets two trucks (per day) in the summer and one truck in the winter. The trucks carry 9,000 gallons, so about 13,500 gallons a day. If I take all those guesses, that’s somewhere around 7 to 9 million gallons a year. But it can’t be proven.”

To generate $300,000 a year from a gas tax, stations in Brookings would need to sell 10 million gallons of gasoline a year — and no one knows if that’s how much is sold.

“We don’t know if we have that level of sales,” said City Manager Gary Milliman. “We have had anecdotal stories — the number of trucks at Fred Meyer. We don’t know if we can make a strong estimate based on the number of trucks. We just don’t have good data.”

But it’s important data, councilors agreed, in determining how much to ask voters to tax fuel to generate the correct amount of revenue to repair roads.

“I think it’s worthwhile of staff time to do recon and find how much gallonage is bought here,” Hodges said. “Without that information, it’s irresponsible. That’s the crux of this whole thing — we’re guessing. I can see this whole thing blowing up.”

Sunsets and exemptions

Councilors debated the length of time such a tax should be in place, as well, and decided to go with three years, rather than the initial 10-year sunset discussed earlier this summer, to allow them to gather information regarding how much gasoline is sold in town.

With that information, they can better extrapolate how much a tax should even be to meet the needs of the road replacement plan; a permanent one would be pursued after more solid numbers are available.

Another topic of discussion among the councilors was whether commercial vehicles — notably log trucks — should be exempt from the tax.

While councilors acknowledged that group would end up paying thousands of dollars a year in such taxes, the largest local logging firm, South Coast Lumber, has its own fueling station, and it’s not even in the city limits.

“We’re talking about street replacement — who’s responsible for repairing the roads,” said Councilor Jake Pieper. “I see 10 log trucks driving down the road every day, but my wife drives our Chevy Tahoe down the road once a day. This (tax on all) makes it more equitable.”

Out of state drivers would contribute significantly to the revenue, as well, as can be seen any given weekend at Fred Meyer, where people with California-plated vehicles line up to fill tanks and jerry cans. Gasoline prices in Crescent City are often 50 cents higher per gallon than in Oregon.

Council did agree, however, to exempt all fuel types the state currently does, notably aircraft fuel and red diesel, which is used on off-road applications.

The action the council took Monday evening merely directs staff to write a ballot title for consideration at its next regular meeting. Then they must approve wording of the ballot question, and all is sent to the state for approval for the ballot in May.