Irate at the potholes, cracks and patches she glimpses beneath her car, Thousand Oaks Mayor Elois Zeanah has launched a personal campaign to boost funding for street maintenance.
To free up money for roadwork, she wants to cut out extras that she deems frivolous--items such as landscaping the Auto Mall and widening Oakwood Drive for a new Civic Arts Plaza entrance.
For Zeanah and her lone ally, Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski, the issue extends beyond the physical condition and aesthetic appearance of Thousand Oaks' streets.
They fear that inappropriate expenditures from the city's gas tax fund, which by law must be used for transportation, have drained away road-repair money and forced delays in maintenance.
But their concerns have so far received a bumpy reception.
When Zeanah announced at last week's council meeting that "city streets are in the worst shape I've ever seen in my 17 years of living here," her colleagues on the dais openly scoffed.
They noted that the public works department responds immediately to reports of potholes or gaping cracks. And they defended the city's 375 miles of streets as safe and well-maintained.
"I don't agree with the premise that we need more money to repair our roads," Councilman Frank Schillo said.
This year, the city will spend about $1.6 million to repave and construct roads, slightly above last year's total, Public Works Director Donald Nelson said.
The budget also allocates $1 million for general street maintenance and another $1 million for public transportation, including the Thousand Oaks Transit buses and the Dial-A-Ride subsidized taxi service.
All those transportation dollars come from the city's gas tax fund, which in turn is fed by the state tax on gasoline.
Today, the council will consider tapping the fund to pay for operating a new wheelchair-accessible van to transport elderly, low-income and disabled residents around the city. The van would augment a fleet of six station wagons that serve about 5,000 people a month.
Running the van for eight hours each weekday would cost $42,000 a year. Offering it just during peak hours would run about $16,000 a year.
Schillo and Councilwoman Judy Lazar backed the expenditure as a viable use of the city's gas tax fund. But Zukowski wavered, reluctant to drain road-repair money although she supports the subsidized taxi program.
"Our basic needs from the gas tax fund have been compromised because we've used the money in areas that are not essential," Zukowski said. "We're just not keeping up with street maintenance as we used to, and you can see the wear and tear. We've used the funds for optional items."
As a prime example of misdirected funds, Zeanah and Zukowski cite the council's decision to spend $600,000 in gas tax money to buy a piece of property on Oakwood. It will be converted into a sweeping entrance into the Civic Arts Plaza parking garage.
Money for last year's Auto Mall landscaping, which cost more than $150,000, also came from the gas tax fund. And city staff recently proposed tapping the fund again for "Welcome to Thousand Oaks" gateway signs, which would cost about $5,000 apiece.
All that money, Zeanah and Zukowski argued, might have been better spent on routine road repair, especially along Moorpark and Erbes roads and in the Wildwood area.
"I'm comparing the current condition of our streets to our own standards," Zeanah said. "Has it been a conscious decision of the staff to stop paving streets to our standards?"
That question, posed at the end of last week's council meeting, drew a swift and angry response from City Manager Grant Brimhall.
"Our city overlay (repaving) program is one of the most vigorous in the county," he said, "and it's certainly far superior to any city in Los Angeles County."
Because many of the city's neighborhoods were developed at the same time, the roads have aged at the same pace and demand for repairs has boomed over the past few years, Brimhall said. At the same time, the city has switched to a new asphalt mix that costs about twice as much as conventional asphalt.
Still, the city continues to repave 13 to 15 miles of road a year.
"I think the streets in this city are in pretty good shape," Nelson said, but he added: "There will always be more needs than money."