For Kachemak City residents, DIY roadwork beats higher taxes

Bruce Street is one of many roads in Kachemak City maintained with funding from local road grants. (Photo by Renee Gross/KBBI)

It’s easy to complain about potholes and poorly maintained roads. But one community has been taking road repair into its own hands. Kachemak City sits on the southern Kenai Peninsula and it offers grants to residents to fix roads. Some residents say DIY roadwork beats higher taxes.

Taz Tally used a run-of-the-mill garden rake to smooth out some ruts on his neighborhood road in Kachemak City this week.

Tally has learned quite a lot about road maintenance in recent years.

“Well, if someone had ever told me that I’d be a road boss, I would have said you’re crazy,” he said.

Tally has been filling potholes and doing other road work on Bruce Street for about 10 years because the alternative is paying the city via taxes.

In the past, Kachemak City said it would raise property taxes to do so.

“Well some of us sat down and did the math on a mill and a half on a $400,000 house and said, whoa, that’s a lot of money every year, year in and year out, regardless of what’s done to the roads or not,” Tally said. “So we kind of all banded together and defeated the motion, but still the roads needed to be maintained.”

The city chose to stick with its road grant system, which has been around in various forms for over 30 years. Now, groups of up to five properties can apply for grants of about $1,400 to help maintain their section of road, but in order to get that money, residents need to have skin in the game. They need to spend about $700 of their own money.

Tally said most residents use the grants from the city to hire professional contractors.

“We put our heads together to find out what do you think we can do this year and put it out to bid and we get the quotes in and make up the grant request to Kachemak City,” he said.

Tally said the program allowed him and his neighbors to pay for everything from sanding and plowing to fixing culverts. But some of the work, Tally said they’ll do on their own.

“Like this year, we’re going to have one of the contractors dump a truck load of D1, road-grade high quality gravel, down at the end of our road,” he said. “And then when the potholes form, we shovel a few boxes full of dirt in the back of the pickup truck and go out and tamp it down in the road.”

While this blend of private-public partnerships is saving money, the city is only able to give out roughly $50,000 each year. Kachemak City Mayor Bill Overway said that money comes from the state.

“We’re given that money to operate the city,” he said. “And each year, its whatever the legislature determines that they’re going to give to various cities, and then at that point we can determine how many grants we can allow for each of the applicants.”

Tally is far from the only one applying for these grants.

Nick Varney, Kachemak City resident of 36 years, said the grant money has been a godsend. In the past, he would use more of his own money to pay for road maintenance.

“We had to do it before,” he said.  “I was loading up a pickup with rock and sand and stuff and going out and shoveling in potholes on my old road. But once we could get the financial help and stuff like that, then we just kind of took over the management of getting the contracts done and let professionals do it.”

Back at Tally’s house, he said he’s not sure if he’d prefer for Kachemak City to take over the work.

“The answer is yes, and no,” he said. “Yes, I’d love for Kachemak City to do it and I wish they do it for the cost that we pay for it, which they can’t of course. And the reason why we’re doing this is not because we love to do our own road maintenance, but the cost differential is enormous.”

Besides, Tally says, he and his neighbor, former House Rep. Paul Seaton, are compelled to do it.

“Paul and I really can’t help ourselves,” he said. “We walk around the neighborhood with our shovels and our rakes and we do this, that and the other thing.”

However, the money that allows these residents to take road maintenance into their own hands comes from the state, and the city says the state’s fiscal crisis could affect the program in the future.

This year’s grant applications for road maintenance are due Monday.