County Progress Magazine is a great resource providing many topics relative to county government. Each month there are interesting and informative articles. On occasion they provide articles written by engineers or seasoned officials addressing county road maintenance and construction. I would be hard pressed to try and better their skilled methods or proven practices. I do, however, wish to speak about rural county roads, but from a slightly different angle: funding.
Too often road funding takes a back burner as Commissioners attempt to address the many needs and demands during the annual budget process. As a result, only small increases are made to the Road District Tax Rate. Under the precinct road system, the Road District Tax income is combined with the vehicle Road and Bridge Fee income and then divided among each precinct. When we compare our Commissioners Annual Road Report or the “needed expenses” to the Tax and Fee income, our combined financial shortfall will easily exceed $12 million. To borrow a statement purportedly made by WWII Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning, “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”* Clearly our battle plan (the road repair plan) has far exceeded our resources.
Focusing greater attention on the General Fund is not the sole reason for our shortfall. Like other impoverished counties in our region, we have experienced our share of disasters including ice storms, flooding, and drought, just to name a few. Each disaster seems more devastating than the last, and they are somewhat consistent, arriving on a three-year cycle since 2001. Four major disasters have triggered federal assistance, a few others only state assistance, and still others no assistance. Those that triggered outside aid provide us “some” monetary relief, but the fact is, most of our roads are damaged beyond any real recovery due to limited funding. Do I even need to mention the 240 percent increase in the cost of road oil from 2001 until now? Next, factor in commercial traffic from oil and gas, timber, and poultry, and the already weakened infrastructure begins to fail at a much faster rate. Forecasters might call this the perfect storm!
While a certain homeowner in our county will pay $3,758 in combined property taxes, Precinct Three’s Road District Tax portion on this home is $15.92. Let me say it another way: The homeowner living on this 2-mile stretch of county road pays $3,758 a year in property taxes; we collect enough from that to fix one pot hole on that homeowner’s daily route into the city. Precinct wide, after salaries, fuel, and maintenance, we will budget approximately $800/road mile for improving and repairing roads. We have the ability to resurface 2 miles of road per year or patch and partially fix 124 miles, but we cannot do both.
As current and continual demands are placed around the necks of property owners, the possibility of lasting road work is not in sight. On the other hand, if the Road District Tax Rate were increased to the maximum allowed (and not subject to any rollback), much needed improvements are still beyond reach. It has become clear to me that property taxes are not capable of providing the amount of funds needed for the preferred method of repairs, and a lack of adequate funding will weaken the repair standard which will lead to even greater costs going forward…throwing good money after bad in many cases. I’m sure we are not the only ones experiencing this perfect storm; I also know not all counties can relate, and I suspect only a few can. For those who do: We are not whipped, and this is not our white flag moment.
Is a road bond the answer? Other entities in our county have tried it. It took more than one attempt to pass, and only then after a reduction. County Assistance District? If cities have already captured the state-allowed amount, then carving out a district among the sparsely populated areas of the county makes no sense to consider. Other methods? We have successfully utilized the County Road Grant Funding as well as other grants that were offered. Each one of them is useful and greatly appreciated, but they provided little impact overall. The property tax method of funding road repair is not keeping up with the road rate of decline. Left alone to this method we will improve and maintain less and less.
Could counties benefit from a voter-approved local sales tax increase? I believe they could. Designating these funds for road repair would give counties a better chance of staying in step with the ongoing demand for safer roads under the large and ever-growing traffic patterns of emergency services, school busses, postal vehicles, commercial vehicles, and the public.
*“A Bridge Too Far” (1974) by Cornelius Ryan gives an account of Operation Market Garden, a failed Allied attempt to break through German lines at Arnhem by taking a bridge in the occupied Netherlands during World War II. Ryan named his book after a comment attributed to Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning before the operation, who reportedly said to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”
By Cass County Commissioner Paul Cothren, Newly Elected President, North & East Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association