Friday, June 7, 2013

Some county roads to go to gravel

De-commissioning could continue without increased local funding

Express Staff Writer

Buttercup Road, which runs from the north side of Hailey to the middle of the Wood River Valley, is one of numerous roads maintained by Blaine County. Photo by Roland Lane

     Cutting corners on spending for Blaine County county road maintenance in recent years will lead to some sections of asphalt roads being de-commissioned this summer and returned to gravel or dirt.

     An increasing number of gravel roads could also become impassable for longer periods of time, along with a reduction in snow removal, due to reductions in staff, said Char Nelson, county director of operations, during a presentation to county commissioners on Wednesday.

     “We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know how bad it was,” Nelson said.

     Nelson presented data from a federally funded assessment of the status of the county’s roads. Her presentation included a photograph of a section of the road from Carey to the Little Wood Reservoir that will be removed of asphalt because the county can no longer fund its upkeep.

     Nelson said if Blaine County does not establish a new local funding source for maintenance and repair of the county’s roads, more roads could go from asphalt to gravel, and snow-removal operations will be reduced.

     “We will have to inform the public. Twenty-five percent of our budget is unsustainable,” Nelson said.

     Blaine County 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. In 2007, the county passed a law prohibiting road funding out of the general fund.

     Nelson said that increased automobile fuel efficiencies and increased fuel costs in recent years have resulted in a steady decrease in gas consumption, thereby decreasing the amount of state tax revenue for roads maintenance from $1.6 million in 2000 to $1.4 million this year.

     Nelson said since the department uses more expensive petroleum products for materials and to power its fleet, the cost of operations has risen from $1.6 million to $2 million during the same period.

     Bellevue business owner Dale Ewersen asked the commission how the downward trend had gone overlooked until now.

     “Many government agencies have struggled in recent years,” answered Commissioner Larry Schoen. “We have been very careful about going to the public for funding, especially when it is property-tax-based funding.”

     Nonetheless, Nelson said pursuing local funding, in the form of a temporary or permanent tax levy, a bond issue or the creation of a highway taxing district, would be necessary to make up a $2 million gap.

     “We need $2 million to keep service at current levels, although roads are deteriorating,” she said.

     According to the Idaho Association of Highway Districts, there are 64 highway districts in Idaho.

     Nelson said of 33 counties with road and bridge departments, about one-third have permanent levies to fund road repair and maintenance. Ten counties rely solely on state tax revenue and Forest Service funding.

     Nelson said $80,000 in Forest Service funding available to Blaine County now could soon go away. She said if this happens, the county would not be able to provide matching funding for grants, one of which is expected to pay for the planned rebuilding of the Adams Gulch bridge north of Ketchum.

     Farmer Jerry Smith gave high praise to the Road and Bridge Department’s ability to make do with less, but also expressed a need to standardize road maintenance, so the south county and other outlying areas don’t become “the ugly stepchild,” suffering from less funding.

     “I’d be loathe to see the county spend $2 million for an Adams Gulch bridge and yet I would be left bouncing off the roof of my truck” while driving on unmaintained roads, he said. “Those people up there have a bit more money than us.”

     Nelson said the department takes an equitable distribution of road services “very seriously.”

     “The squeaky wheel in this case does not always get the grease,” she said.           

Tony Evans:

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