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Opinion: County road funding is needed

Becker County has a problem. The $2.7 million a year it receives from the state to repair and maintain county state aid highways isn’t enough to do the job.

The actual cost is closer to $3.5 million a year.

Part of that is due to the higher cost of petroleum-based products like asphalt. In 2003, it cost $73,000 per mile to put an asphalt overlay on an existing highway.

It now costs $171,000 per mile, a 133 percent increase. County revenues simply have not kept up.

The county kicks in another $600,000 a year, but that road and bridge fund has to pay for seal-coating and other work, as well as repairs and maintenance to the gravel roads and bridges that aren’t supported by state aid.

The bottom line is the county needs to be putting about $800,000 a year more towards its roads to make the system sustainable.

Raising the property tax levy by 4 percent would bring in about $700,000 a year, but there’s a levy cap this year that prohibits the county from hiking the levy more than 1.77 percent, which would bring in about $330,000. And that’s for all county needs.

It’s not clear how long the Legislature will keep the last-minute cap it imposed on counties. County lobbyists don’t expect it to last more than a  year.

But the Legislature giveth and the Legislature taketh away — lawmakers also gave counties the right to levy a sales tax of up to one-half percent to help cover transportation needs.

Various estimates put the annual take from a half-cent sales tax in Becker County at $1.4 million to $1.9 million.

The tax has to be tied to a transportation project and end when the project is finished.

Lawmakers also allowed outstate counties for the first time to levy a wheelage tax, which involves a $10-per-vehicle surcharge paid when license plate tabs are purchased.

The wheelage tax, long used by a number of metro counties, would raise about $314,000 per year for Becker County.

In 2018 the tax would increase to up to $20 per vehicle.

Interest rates are still relatively low, and the county could float bonds to get ahead on highway projects, potentially saving money by avoiding more expensive repairs later.

So the county board has a number of options on the table as it makes budget decisions for the coming year.

A public hearing is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday at the courthouse on the sales tax and wheelage tax options.

The only action could be on the wheelage tax, since it requires an Aug. 1 deadline for state approval.

The county seems to be leaning towards a quarter-cent or eighth-cent sales tax, which would raise $350,000 to $700,000.

Or the county could implement the entire half-cent sales tax and choose to lower its levy to offset the higher revenues.

The sales tax has its obvious downsides, but it also is one of the best ways to tap into revenue from out-of-county visitors.

At this point it appears to be the county’s best option: Roads, bridges and highways can’t be allowed to deteriorate. The safety of residents and economic success of the county depend on a well-maintained road system.