County Commission sets new tax levy to aid road maintenance

Perkins County commissioners bit the bullet last Tuesday, making the difficult decision to increase taxes for all property owners within the county.
The five-man commission enacted a 35 cent per $1,000 of valuation on all taxable county property. That will generate roughly $261,800 in taxes payable in 2023. Per the board’s official action, that tax will remain in effect for two years. The money will be put towards gravel crushing and road maintenance. 
In two years, the county hopes to rely on a different revenue source. They are eligible annually for STIP (state transportation improvement program) funding. They are not currently receiving that money because they are still paying back what they borrowed ahead for a previous road project. That money will be paid freed up again in  two more years.
The vote to increase property taxes for the road and bridge fund was not a unanimous decision amongst board members. The five-man board voted 3-2 in favor of the tax.
Perkins County is receiving $416,481 in PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) money this month. That payment comes from the federal government for national grassland acreage that is not taxable. It isn’t as much as taxes would be if that land was privately owned. The county has the discretion of what to do with that payment, which varies from year to year.
Traditionally, commissioners have shared the PILT money with the Lemmon and Bison school districts to the tune of $188,000, which is prorated to the districts based on the number of federal acres in each district with Lemmon receiving the lion’s share. Per state statute the county does not have to share that money.
Lemmon commissioner Todd Campbell introduced the idea that the county could keep that money this year to benefit all taxpayers by fixing more roads vs. it benefitting only those who have children in school. By keeping that $188,000, a lower tax levy could be set to garner the rest of the money needed for roads, he said. 
 A lengthy discussion followed with the pros and cons of withholding PILT from the schools this year. 
The schools finalized their budgets for the 2022-2023 school year at their July meetings earlier this month.  
Commissioner Mike Schweitzer felt that Lemmon and Bison school districts should be made aware that they could receive less - or even none - of the PILT funds this year.  “I feel real bad that the school isn’t here today,” he said. Therefore, no action was taken on how to disperse PILT money and the superintendents of both school districts will be invited to the August 9 meeting of the commission when that topic will again appear on the agenda.
Needing to make a decision by July 15 on enacting a road and bridge levy, the board voted 3-2 to approve the 35 cents per $1,000 of valuation for all property owners for the Road and Bridge Fund. That tax will be collected and spent in 2023.
Earlier in the meeting, the commission moved $250,000 from the county’s General Fund to the Road and Bridge Fund to be available for road work this year. That required a supplemental budget hearing which was advertised for this meeting. Nobody appeared to voice an opinion and the money was transferred.
Highway Superintendent Cody Green spoke with commissioners about a secondary road policy and how to prioritize them for things such as mowing and snow removal. “No matter what I do here,” he said, “we’re playing with fire.” 
State’s Attorney Shane Penfield reminded Green that the county roads must be his first priority. 
Green commented that in some counties county government doesn’t do any maintenance on secondary roads. However, in those counties, the people are not taxed for those services. In Perkins County, they are.
Because there is money in the secondary road fund, collected from those taxes, Commissioner Wayne Henderson suggested that Green spend that money, specifically collected for secondary those roads, by hiring contractors to do the maintenance.
Engineers Douglas Wessel and Jason Hanson, Brosz Engineering, visited the board room briefly to discuss funding applications for the box culvert that will replace a bridge on Foster Road. They have completed the initial engineering studies and the next step, they said, is to pursue a Bridge Replacement Grant (BIG). This project has a “score” of 40.9. Wessel explained that, typically, projects that score in the 40s are not funded.
Wessel went on to explain that by hiring engineers to do “structure bid ready” plan, the project could gain an additional 10 points with more success of being awarded the BIG. That means that engineers would get everything ready for bid letting at a cost to the county of $77,000. The total cost of that project is projected to be $900,000. 
 Another way to increase the score would be to apply for less than an 80/20 grant.
Neither of these methods would be guaranteed but Wessel said he’d be “highly shocked” if the project was denied the BIG if they increase their score. 
BIG grants must be applied for by January 2023.
If the project can be bid-ready by January, it could be put out for contractor bids by next summer with work to be done in 2024.
Commissioners will take some time to think it over and discuss it again at their August meeting. 
Hanson spoke about the recent small structure inventory that Brosz Engineering recently completed. They found 26 eligible culverts that the county can get a total of $37,177.20 for repairs and replacement. Guidelines are not yet clear on how the money can be spent but one thing was certain, culverts on low maintenance roads cannot be included.
Scot Sexton, who ranches south of Bison along the Bixby Road, spoke with commissioners and Penfield in Executive Session for approximately 20 minutes regarding a cattle guard issue. 
Back in open session, the board made it clear that Sexton’s request was a “special circumstance” and they would honor his request “specifically for this cattle guard.” They do not intend to set precedence.
There have been several personnel changes on the county’s payroll. Green has hired another operator. Bailey Escott was approved at $18.67/hr. Green is still short two operators on his ideal 10-person crew. 
Sheriff Kelly Serr noted that Deputy Noah Richards has completed law enforcement certification and asked that his salary be increased by fifty cents per hour, retroactive to June 4. Serr has hired Deputy Tim McCartney, already a certified officer, at that same base wage of $20.28/hr. McCartney replaces Deputy Brabazon who recently retired. Serr is promoting Deputy Matt Giesler to be his Chief Deputy and set his base wage a $22.18. 
It was approved for Deputy Bill Johnson to use 240 hours of accumulated sick leave as personal leave when he takes time off to be with a sick child who will be getting cancer treatments for six weeks.
While in the board room, Serr shared a jail survey that required the commission’s input. Perkins County contracts with Meade County for jail services and, according to Serr that is working well. “Right now, we’re okay,” He said. This county has never been involved in a compact agreement, which is what the survey was about. He asked how the board felt about building a regional jail. Funding would be the problem in that scenario. 
Perkins County Director of Equalization Corina Molnar informed the board of new legislation in the state that changes the formula for discretionary taxing on new construction to include commercial residential and housing developments in addition to the existing residential- only policy. The change is optional but Molnar said, “It won’t hurt a bit. If we don’t use it, we don’t.”
The new legislation sets a seven-year reduction in taxes, up from the current five-year policy on new construction or additions. For the first two taxable years, the reduction would be 25%; in the 3rd and 4th years, it would be 50% and the 5th and 6th, 75%. By year seven, taxes would be 100% of pre-adjustment value. 
On the current five-year discretionary plan, new construction is discounted to 20%-40%-60%-80% in the first four years and, in the fifth year, 100%.
The discretionary formula is a way to encourage future growth. The commission approved a first reading of the resolution and will act on it again next month.
Commissioner Rusty Foster broached the subject of spraying for noxious weeds on county land. His stance was that, if private landowners are required to spray, the county should be doing it, too. 
In one other order of business, commissioners authorized new finance officer Sara Stadler to submit requested information to the state regarding the state’s health insurance plan.
The commission will meet again on Tuesday, Sept. 26 for a special budgeting session as they prepare estimated expenditures and revenue for 2023.

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