County Commission explains pending road and bridge levy

Kyle Carmichael, chairman of the Perkins County Commission, offered opening comments when that five-man board met in special session last Monday night. The purpose of that meeting was to explain to county property owners why a new road and bridge levy is necessary for gravel crushing and road maintenance.
Approximately 25 people attended the meeting, held in the court room in Bison, in addition to board members, finance office employees and States Attorney Shane Penfield. 
Carmichael explained that the board wanted the public to be aware that they are considering a tax hike for all property owners within the county. Rising expenses and deteriorating roads are what has spurred the conversation around the county board table. “A lot of people already think their taxes are too high,” Carmichael said. Yet, there is no other way for the county to bring in additional revenue because the state caps taxes, which can only increase each year by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and growth within the county, which means new construction. 
County are failing. Since rains this spring, gravel roads have been a mess because so much of the gravel has been worn away. Highway superintendent Cody Green and individual commissioners have fielded numerous complaints. Something has to be done but there isn’t money enough in the county coffers to fix them all.
Green held up a map of the county where he had cordoned off six zones. His idea is to start in the northwest corner of the state, which he has already begun. He and his crew will pull in the shoulders to reclaim lost gravel, then re-shape the road and add gravel. It will take a long time to get to every road in this large county. 
He admitted that most of the county’s roads have surpassed their life expectancy but estimates that he could reclaim 90% of the gravel loss by pulling shoulders.
Currently he’s working with only a seven-man crew. Ideally, that number would be ten operators.
 “There are a lot of miles here to try to get everything done,” Green said, In addition to lack of sufficient man-power, gravel is in short supply. 
Mike Stadler, Bison, asked when Green would have a 10-man crew again. Green has been advertising for some time but is not finding qualified people for the job. Starting pay of $19/hour might deter some applicants but commissioners think that the benefit package and four-day weeks offset the lower starting wage.
Green is working the current crew four – twelve hour days with the option for them to work on Friday, if they want to.
“I don’t have enough gravel on hand,” Green said, and there isn’t enough money to mine more. He’ll need over one-million ton of gravel to do all the roads in the county. If he had the gravel, he would be open to contracting help but, still, it will be “a long process.” Generally, only two miles of road can be accomplished in a work day.
Green estimated that he has about 1,000T of gravel at the Van Slooten pit; 3,000 at Longwood’s; 13,000 at Merriman’s; and 10,000 at the Reedy pit, totaling approximately 27,000 T. It takes 2,100 per one mile of road with a three inch lift!
The highway superintendent said that he would prioritize the roads that would get gravel first, beginning with county roads, then roads on the secondary system and ending with township roads.
Finance Officer Sylvia Chapman spoke next. She explained that approximately $1,000,000 is collected within the county each year from license plate fees for the road and bridge fund and that the wheel tax brings in another $50,000. She termed that “a drop in the bucket but it’s something.” Each year, approximately $200,000 is transferred to that fund from General Fund for capital projects. Still that’s not enough.
The county can get State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) funding but, currently, they are paying back money that was borrowed ahead for another project so it will be two more years before they’ll be able to bank more of those funds.
 Although the state approved for counties to levy for roads and bridges, Perkins County has never enacted it. Now is the time to do so, according to Chapman. “We need revenue to fix these roads,” she said.
“There’s no way we can raise enough to do the whole county,” Carmichael added. The new levy would be used each year strictly for mining gravel, including royalties to landowners, and for road maintenance.
Some in the audience wanted to know if there were other options vs. imposing a new tax. It was suggested that the money paid to other entities, which includes fire departments, be cut. Commissioner Rusty Foster spoke to that. Cutting those donations would only save around $100,000 and might mean the end of some services within the county.   
Somebody else questioned whether it’s really necessary to have a seven-man sheriff department. Some of the sheriff’s expenses are reimbursed with payments from the City of Lemmon and Town of Bison and, commissioners believe, is the most economical way to secure law enforcement.
Roxie Seaman, Prairie City, questioned if the overlay of the Summerville Road and chip seal on the Bixby Road, already scheduled, could be delayed to find money to mine more gravel. Green’s response was, “The longer you hold off on an asphalt road, the worse it gets.”
Mick Kennedy, from the southern end of the Bixby Road suggested parking graders throughout the county and training somebody nearby to operate them so that roads are graded in a timely manner.
“If someone is willing to take the time and go get certified, could that work?” he asked. The only problem with that, according to Penfield, is that they’d have to be on the county’s payroll to be covered for workman’s comp and liability.
Kennedy asked, “If we get the gravel, do you have the money and the manpower to spread it on the roads?” He wants to see some numbers.
Colin Lamont, who ranches south of Lodgepole off Highway 75, didn’t disagree with a new tax but he, too, would like to see a plan in place before he can support it. Commissioner Mike Schweitzer explained that there is a five-year plan for roads and bridges that is reviewed and, sometimes altered, every year.
Lamont also commented that if there isn’t enough staff to do the work, what good does the extra tax do? 
Some wanted to know how long the tax would stay in place. “Once government implements a tax,” Lamont said, “it never goes away.”
Schweitzer thinks that local government in this county doesn’t operate that way. “If the county doesn’t need money, we’ll give it back,” he said.
Green hopes to gravel about 17 miles of road this year. Some years he can do up to 30 miles. Commissioner Wayne Henderson favors hiring a contractor to get more than that done but only if there is moisture. Without the rains, it’s a waste of money and manpower, he said.
Gary Wilkin, rural Meadow, commented, “We need to do more than 30 miles a year if we have 900 miles of county roads!”
Iver Heier, Prairie City-area rancher placed some blame on the county operators for the decline of the road system. They need to dig down and grade, he said, not just go over the top. He thinks they also drive too fast when they are grading and, therefore, do a sub-standard job. Green, who has only been the highway superintendent for one year, admitted that an inexperienced crew is part of the problem. He has scheduled grading schools to train his operators. Currently, only two of the seven are qualified operators.
Wash-boardy roads are not just a result of poor grading, according to Commissioner Wayne Henderson. Traffic causes washboards, too, he said.   
The commissioner will make a final decision on the new tax at their regular July 12 meeting. In order to enact the tax for 2023, the decision has to be made by July 15. Foster said, “We waited around and now we’re up against a deadline.” He added, “When you don’t spend money, sometimes it cost you more in the end.”
Henderson ended the conversation, reminding the audience that some will benefit more than others from the new tax but “all will pay.”
In other business on the short agenda, the commission approved another 60,000T of gravel to be mined from the Marty pit, south of Prairie City and from the Van Slooten pit near Lodgepole. Morris, the Ft. Pierre contractor currently working at the Marty pit, bid was the low bidder, at just $3.60T for the Marty pit job. They’ve agreed to crush more than what was originally bid for that same dollar amount. In addition to the tonnage amount, an additional 80 cents per ton will be paid in royalties to the landowners. 
The money for that additional crushing will come from government COVID money that the county received. An advertisement for a supplemental budget to allow the transfer of those funds from General Fund to the Road and Bridge Find was approved and will be acted upon at the July 12 meeting.
Last week’s meeting was Sylvia Chapman’s final meeting as the county’s finance officer. Her official last day before retirement is June 30. She received accolades from the commissioners and audience for a job well done. Chapman told everyone, “I worked for you. It’s been good.”  Schweitzer said, “We’ve been very fortunate.”
Deputy Sara Stadler will step into the position until the next election. Commissioners set her base wage at $52,637.79/year plus her longevity.

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