Friday, July 12, 2013

County eyes highway funding levy

New tax could raise additional $1.8 million per year

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County commissioners are considering a property tax levy to raise up to about $1.8 million annually for the next five years in additional highway maintenance funds. The money would nearly double the county’s current road and bridge budget of about $2 million.
    In late May, county Director of Operations Char Nelson presented the commissioners with a woeful assessment of county roads. Nelson said that unless the county finds a way to increase the department’s budget, conditions on both paved and gravel roads will continue to deteriorate, and expenses will increase as maintenance is delayed.
    Road and bridge maintenance was once funded partly by property taxes, but since the mid-1990s has been funded by state gas tax revenue and “mitigation fees” from subdivision developers. That policy was codified by a resolution passed by the county commissioners in 2007 prohibiting the use of general fund money for the Road and Bridge Department. But subdivision development has nearly ceased and the county’s annual share of gas taxes has fallen from $1.6 million in 2000 to $1.4 million today.
    “You’ve convinced us, I think, that we want to maintain our roads and bridges at a certain level,” Commissioner Larry Schoen told Nelson during a meeting at the Old County Courthouse on Tuesday.
    Despite a statement by Commissioner Angenie McCleary that “a lot has changed since 2007” and that she would support amending the 2007 resolution, the board focused on raising revenue.
    State law provides two types of permanent or temporary property-tax levies for funding county highways. One raises up to 0.2 percent of assessed market value and requires that half the money raised from property within cities be distributed to those cities. The second “special levy” can raise up to 0.084 percent of market value and allows the county to keep all the money raised.
    The commissioners appeared inclined toward the “special levy” since it would provide more than adequate funding—up to about $6.8 million per year.
    The commissioners also appeared to be leaning toward a temporary levy, which would raise money for up to two years, both to allow taxpayers more control over spending and because the Legislature could at some point provide counties with additional funding mechanisms or raise fuel taxes.
    A permanent levy requires passage by two-thirds of voters and a temporary levy by a simple majority.
    The commissioners only briefly discussed the possibility of creating a highway district, which would have its own taxing authority. They appeared to conclude that another layer of bureaucracy is not desirable.
    “I don’t think the cities in Blaine County are ready to abandon their street departments in favor of a countywide highway district,” Schoen said.
    Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said that before the county decides on a funding solution, it will need to do three things: determine exactly how much is needed annually for county highway construction projects, communicate with the public and communicate with the cities.
    The board will need to approve a special election for a highway levy by early September in order to get in on this November’s ballot.

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