Our Opinion: Speak up on county road plan

Published 9:59 am Wednesday, July 27, 2016

While national politics has taken center stage in recent weeks at the Democratic and Republican conventions, Mower County residents will soon have a chance to guide local leaders as they approach a decision on infrastructure funding here at home.

The county board is mulling whether to enact a half-cent sales tax to fund specific roads and bridge improvements, a plan county officials aren’t keen on but see as a necessary discussion. And public feedback could be the deciding factor.

The Mower County board will host a public hearing to gauge feedback on the plan at 6 p.m. Monday in the basement board room of the Mower County Government Center, 201 First St. NE.

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If you care about the state of local roads and bridges, now is the time to speak up before the board votes to approve or deny the sales tax later in August or in early September.

First, let’s get a few things clear:

1. We commend the county board for discussing infrastructure funding options, especially since it attracts many opinions.

2. Infrastructure funding is a vastly complex issue.

3. One can argue many pros and cons to vote for or against the half-cent sales tax — there is no 100 percent right option.

Despite no easy solutions, the need is pretty clear: The board has discussed a roughly $100 million need for road and bridge projects over the next decade and an estimated funding shortfall of $6.5 million per year.

If the board votes to enact the half-cent sales tax, it would trim the county’s projected annual funding shortfall to $5 million a year, but it wouldn’t come close to eliminating funding shortfalls.

It would help, not fix, the issue.

Earlier this month, the board unanimously approved a plan of more than 40 roads and bridges that would be replaced or repaired with the help of a half-cent sales tax if it were approved.

The projects outlined wouldn’t exclusively use money from the sales tax. The county would need about $5.15 million a year to complete the proposed projects, with $3.3 million coming from the gas tax, $350,000 coming from the wheelage tax and $1.5 million coming the half-cent sales tax.

But county commissioners aren’t sold that the half-cent sales tax is the best option. In fact, they’ve called it a Band-Aid, but they admit it may be the only option the board can control.

Commissioners remain outspoken about their displeasure with the state’s recent inaction on road and bridge funding, continuing to argue that they’re only discussing the sales tax because the Legislature remains gridlocked on transportation funding.

But that’s unlikely to change. The state has been stuck in transportation limbo in recent years as Republicans and Democrats have failed to find a middle ground. This has left counties and cities waiting on much-needed funds.

Commissioners also argue the Legislature has taken steps to pass the buck of road funding down to the counties.

In 2013, the state approved a wheelage tax and a half-cent sales tax as options for counties to fund local road and bridge projects. In June of 2013, the Mower board approved a $10 wheelage tax, which is paid when drivers renew licenses. That was estimated to bring in $357,000 a year.

While commissioners largely agree the state should be responsible for increasing its road and bridge funding, they also realize the county can’t depend on a divisive state Legislature for funding.

With roads in need of repair, a lack of state action and continued public calls for action on roads, the county board finds itself between a rock an a hard place. It can enact the tax or wait on the state. Arguments can be made for both.

With the board not swaying one way, public feedback will be vital. If you want to have your voice heard and want to have sway on a key public issues, this is your chance. Attend the meeting and speak up.