Friday, May 31, 2013

County faces crisis in road budget

Leaders say new funding sources are needed

Express Staff Writer

Motorists drive on Buttercup Road north of Hailey. Blaine County said this week that its roads budget is too small to properly maintain some county roadways. Photo by Roland Lane

     Blaine County will need to spend about $2 million more every year to bring its roads out of a downward spiral into disrepair, county commissioners learned this week. Unless the commissioners are willing to raid other departments, that money would have to be raised through a temporary or permanent tax levy, a bond issue or the creation of a highway taxing district.

     County Operations Director Char Nelson made a presentation on the state of the county’s 450 miles of paved, gravel and dirt roads Tuesday at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey. She said a gap between revenue and expenses began to open in 2006 and has been widening ever since.

     Nelson said road and bridge maintenance was once funded 40 percent by property taxes, but since the mid-1990s has been funded almost solely by state gas tax revenue and “mitigation fees” from subdivision developers. That policy was codified by a resolution passed by county commissioners in 2007 prohibiting the use of general fund money for the Road and Bridge Department. But subdivision development has fizzled and the county’s annual share of gas taxes has fallen from $1.6 million in 2000 to $1.4 million today. Meanwhile, the department’s budget has grown from $1.6 million to more than $2 million.

     “We’ve been living off of our reserves,” Nelson said.

     Despite that budget increase, the county has been unable to keep up with road maintenance demands and has had to stretch the life of its equipment.

     Nelson said new paved roads start with about 20 years of useful life, and the most cost-efficient way to maintain them is to keep them at a level of 10 to 13 more years of useful life, which is when chip-sealing is most cost-effective. She said 70 percent of the county’s 124 miles of paved roads are now below that threshold, having on average only 8.5 more years of life. At the current level of funding, that will drop to 6.5 years in five years.

     Maintenance on the county’s 326 miles of gravel and dirt roads is in a similar state.

     “Because of the level of funding we have, we have been and are continuing to be on the decline,” Nelson said.

     She said that to bring its roads up to a desirable condition and keep them that way, the county will need to spend between $3.7 million and $4 million annually on its road and bridge budget.

     She suggested that the budget for paved road maintenance be increased from its current $650,000 per year to $1.4 million annually for two years, then about $1 million for the next four years, for a total of about $6.9 million. She said if the current level of funding continues for the next five years, almost $8 million will need to be spent in year six to bring county roads up to an appropriate level. That would cost a total of about $11 million.

     If they want to reach Nelson’s suggested funding level, the commissioners will need to decide how to find the money. County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves said they could pass a new resolution overriding the 2007 resolution and use general fund money for the Road and Bridge Department. However, reducing the budgets of other county departments did not appear to be a palatable strategy Tuesday.

     “What department then suffers?” Nelson asked rhetorically.

     “There’s no obvious solution,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said in an interview. “[But] our current model is not sustainable.”

     Commissioner Larry Schoen said in an interview that the best solution will be one that maximizes efficiency and accountability, and could be a combination of funding sources.

     “Does the public think their county commissioners are accountable on road issues, or would they rather have an elected board on a highway district? We need feedback on that,” he said.

     Nelson and Roads Manager Tom Duffy made a presentation Wednesday suggesting a fiscal year 2014 road and bridge budget of $1.9 million, a $500,000 decrease from this year’s budget. Nelson said the department had not used $300,000 budgeted for a new grader this year, and the department’s reserves now total $977,000. She said in an interview that the department needs at least $500,000 in reserves to carry it through the first quarter of each year until the state distributes gas tax revenue.

     Nelson and Duffy requested a budget item of $60,000 in salary and benefits to hire a mechanic to maintain the department’s aging fleet of equipment.

     Schoen suggested that the department regularly buy its equipment used.

     “I think if we’re going to the public and asking for more money, it’s something they expect us to look at,” he said.

     Duffy said he agreed.

     “I can continue my mission with this fleet,” he said.

Greg Moore:

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