GR road tax: How to fund repairs?

Cold patch is used to fill a pothole in Grand Rapids. (Feb. 25, 2014)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s no debate about the condition of Grand Rapids streets: They are a jarring, rim-bending, alignment-jolting mess.

The city estimates 60% of Grand Rapids streets are in poor condition. They didn’t reach that state overnight.

“Absolutely, it’s in part the city’s fault. But the world’s changed and the city didn’t react quick enough,” City manager Greg Sundstrom said.

The state gas tax is a major funding source for the city’s street fund. But the tax, despite the increasing cost of street repair, hasn’t been raised since 1997. And to add to the problem, people are using less gas these days.

The solution from Grand Rapids City Hall is to have residents keep paying an income tax sold to voters as temporary in 2010. Voters will be asked Tuesday to approve a 15-year extension to the tax.

If you live in the city, you would continue to pay $2 for every $1,000 of taxable income. If you work in but live outside of the city, you would continue to pay $1 for every $1,000 of taxable income. As a tradeoff, the city would drop the requirement that homeowners pay to maintain the sidewalk in front of their home.

Supporters of the measure proposed an income tax because it’s not just residents who use city streets.

The group organized against the tax requests says that’s not fair.

“Taxation without representation is what this country was founded on. Now politicians are telling us we can tax you, but you can’t vote on it,” said Michael Farage of the Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association. “I don’t believe in that at all.”

City leaders say there’s no way around that — the law says nonresidents can’t vote in a city election.

“Would I have liked to seen a countywide solution or a statewide solution for this as opposed to Grand Rapids doing it ourselves? Sure,” said Sundstrom.

Farage says roads are a state issue.

“It’s up to our politicians to fight for these tax dollars. We’re paying it,” Farage said.

City leaders say even if the state does come up with a road funding solution, it won’t be enough to fix Grand Rapids’ problems.

The citizen’s committee that studied street conditions suggested the city invest about $22 million per year in streets.

The income tax would generate just under $10 million annually. The city hopes to collect another $6 million from the state, depending on whether and when Lansing works out a new plan to fund roads. Grants and money from the city’s general fund would also contribute to the total.

“It’s time to pay the piper. We need to pay for this locally if we ever want it to get done,” said Sundstrom.

There will be two questions on the May 6 ballot: One asking voters to extend  the income tax until 2030 to pay for roads. The second will ask voters to change the city charter to drop the sidewalk repair assessment. The first question must pass for the second to go into effect.

Residents have until 2 p.m. Saturday to apply for an absentee ballot by mail. The City Clerk’s Office will be open Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. to serve people seeking an absentee ballot. People can also vote by absentee ballot at the clerk’s office before 4 p.m. Monday. Anyone with questions can call the City Clerk’s Office at 616.456.3010 or visit its website.

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