The chronic controversy over how to generate sufficient money to improve deteriorating county roads mushroomed following the commission’s decision Oct. 19 to impound $455,000 from the 2016 budget, with the intent of using some part of it to apply against the burgeoning deterioration of county roads. The money has traditionally been directed to the county general fund to pay costs of general government. County engineer Winston Sitton has commented that each year the county falls further behind in keeping critical federally funded roads up to standards. Those roads have to pass tough annual inspections if the county is to continue to receive about $533,000 in annual federal road funds.
Meanwhile, commissioners continue to hear increasingly frequent and emotional (both angry and poignant) appeals from citizens who live on the county’s approximately 800 miles of purely local or “pullup” roads – roads that have not ever been and will probably never be recipients of designated federal or state road funding – roads that are not major travel arteries and that are not designated as either “farm-to-market” roads or major or minor traffic collectors.
How big is the problem in monetary terms? There’s no ready answer that covers all 1100 miles of county roads. But here’s a partial answer from Sitton. It would take $17 million to $18 million to bring 155 miles of federally-monitored “main” county roads up to standard over the next 15 years. That equates to over $1 million a year – but does not include any money to improve the 800-odd miles of county pullup roads, a significant number of which are in poor condition and which generate the majority of citizen complaints.
How much money would that take? Here’s a rough estimate, based, not on any official estimates, but on The Blount Countian’s arithmetic. Say there are 300 miles of roads in the county that need to be paved with asphalt and 800 miles that need to be paved with much cheaper tar and gravel. According to the county engineer, paving with asphalt costs about $90,000 per mile. Tar and gravel costs about a third of that – say $30,000 a mile in round numbers. For the 300 miles of asphalt times $90,000 per mile, the total is $27,000,000 to repave the asphalt highways. 800 miles of “back” roads or pullup roads times $30,000 per mile equals $24,000,000. Adding the two together – $27,000,000 + $24,000,000 = $51,000,000.
Of course, all those roads can’t be and shouldn’t be paved in one year. But if it was done on a 15-year cycle, it would take an additional $3.4 million a year, over and above the $5.3 million to $6.6 million the county has spent on roads annually for the past five years. This oversimplified calculation can be (and probably will be) criticized on technical grounds, but it serves to give a general sense of magnitude of the problem the county faces. (The total can be legitimately criticized as being too low, in that it doesn’t allow for cost inflation over 15 years and does not include maintenance or replacement of any of the county’s 114 bridges. ) Two schools at odds: first, cutting costs
So far, two major schools of thought flourish on how to solve the problem, and they’re substantially at odds. The first school holds that the county budget – the general fund which bears the general costs of county government – is full of waste – fat that can be and must be vigorously pared, with the savings applied to the ever-growing problem of keeping up with deteriorating roads. (Why are they deteriorating faster than the commission’s ability to keep them maintained? Because maintenance costs have risen by orders of magnitude over the last two decades, while revenues have remained stagnant or even declined slightly.)
The cost-cutters abhor the thought of any effort to increase taxes paid by citizens to maintain roads – before the last dime of waste is squeezed out of county departmental operations. They question the need for some traditional expenses of county government to continue to be represented in the budget. A primary function of elected officials, according to this view, is to protect citizens from government waste and unnecessary expenditures that magnify the burden of taxes, which many citizens on low or fixed incomes struggle to bear. The cost-cutters strenuously oppose any growth of that burden through tax increases. The other side: raising more money
The second school holds that the financial magnitude of the job of fixing the roads is so great as to dwarf any savings that could be squeezed from the county general fund, which they judge to be already lean. They believe the contribution of savings from cost cutting to road improvement would be negligible compared to the millions needed, while the associated reduction in county services would be intolerable to citizens. This school holds that the only solution is increased revenue, and the only way to generate it is to ask citizens to agree to or accept tax increases in the form of higher sales taxes, gasoline taxes, or fees such as tag fees. That is the only way, the money raisers say, to create revenue on the order of the $1 million or more annually it would take to close the gap on deteriorating roads.
A primary function of elected officials, according to this view, is to meet the needs of citizens now and in the future. They believe that citizens have abundantly expressed their dissatisfaction related to roads, and believe expectations cannot be met without increases in revenue proportional to rising costs associated with more than a decade of failing to keep pace with the rate of road deterioration. Uppermost among services citizens express dissatisfaction with is the condition of roads, particular those nearest their homes, which they travel most often. The issue, posed as a dual question
The difference between the two points of view can be seen from one other perspective, posed as a question. Which is greater – citizens’ desire for better roads, or their opposition to paying for them in the form of more taxes, which is the only way to effect a noticeable impact? Immovable object vs. irresistible force? Remains to be seen. Meanwhile, The Blount Countian asked several knowledgeable people to weigh in with their opinions. Not all responded, but the ones that did are presented in condensed quotations here. The question posed to all respondents was “Is more revenue needed to adequately maintain county roads? Or can the commission do the job by cost-cutting and managing more efficiently the money they already have?” Royce King, Blount County probate judge/commission chairman, 2001-2007
They can never bring all the roads up to standard without more revenue. That’s just a simple fact. They have to be careful how they go about it, though. People don‘t want to hear that. There’s no way the commission can manage costs efficiently enough to take care of county roads without more revenue.
I think the state government has enough money to work with if they use it efficiently. I think in both the state and nation, we’ve mismanaged money tremendously. But I don’t think we have in Blount County. We’re one of I think it’s only two counties in the state that are debt-free.
I don’t think the commission can cut enough jobs to pave all the roads that need it. If we’re gonna ride on better roads, we’re going to have to pay for it. If the commission is going to pave the roads they’re going to have more money, as distasteful as that is to me and to everyone else. David Standridge, Blount County probate judge/commission chairman 2007- 2012, and current District 34 state representative
I think it’s tough for anybody not in the commissioners’ shoes to answer that. It’s a constant problem – having enough money to keep up the roads and to fund general government in the county. I don’t think it would be fair for me to comment from an outside position on the problems they are facing, or on what they might decide to do. I don’t believe as a state representative I should be critical of their efforts to decide what to do.
I do agree there’s a challenge to have enough resources to fund road maintenance. I think the commission has to make sure that’s done. I’m certainly willing to work with them if it comes to an issue dealing with the Legislature. One thing about that needs to be clear: I do believe any measures involving the Legislature need to be put to a vote of the people. Otherwise, I can tell you, it’s not going to happen. Donnie Thomas, Blount County probate judge/commission chairman, 1995-2001
I think Bob Harvey’s right (Ed. – referring to Bob Harvey’s speech to the commission telling them the only way to solve the road problem was to “face the music” and increase taxes, as he and a previous commission had done 24 years ago, at a similar time of crisis). There’s not enough money in the county treasury to pave all the roads that need it. You can’t cut funding to all the departments and agencies in the budget. They’re just as important as the roads. You have to have new money. You just have to make sure that new money raised is specifically designated for roads and that the people know that. Ed Lowe, Oneonta city manager
I think they should take a comprehensive approach: streamlining and cutting costs, plus a plan to provide for an increase in revenues. You couldn’t do it just cutting costs and services alone. You need a way to have small incremental increases in revenues that match increases in costs. Sid Martin, former Blount County Commissioner
I’ve always been against raising taxes. I felt like the commission should first go back and see what the last thing added to the budget was, and that should be the first cut. Then the next to last thing and so on. I was not for giving the general fund all of it (ED. – referring to the 2-cent gas tax increase in 1991, which was directed to the general fund). Other things – Palisades Park, if it doesn’t fund itself, we don’t need to keep spending money up there. The Agri-Business Center, that’s the other thing. If it doesn’t make back the money the county gives them, we don’t need to keep dishing it out to ’em. Donny Ray, Blount County Revenue Commissioner, 1993-2007
Well, I’ve been gone from up there for several years, but I can tell you there’s no fat to trim in that revenue department budget. We’ve gone through things like this before, tightening up to be more efficient and so on. One thing we did was to cross train people so they could do more than one job or task, but there’ s only so far you can go with that before you get people overloaded and you start to lose efficiency and customer service suffers. The revenue office and the probate office both are down to bare bones. So, no. You can’t solve the road problem without more revenue. There’s no way. You could pare the general fund to death and not have enough savings to pave 10 miles of road. And there’s hundreds of miles more than that to pave. We need more revenue. Ralph Moore, Blount County Commissioner, 1987-1990, 1995-2002
You’ve got to tighten your belt as much as possible. It’s too easy to raise taxes, but the people out here can’t stand it. Now, I wouldn’t be in favor of cutting the sheriff’s department budget, with all the problems we’re having with crime and drugs. I’m not sure but what it (the possibility of a tax increase) oughta be put to a vote of the people. Or you might cut the budget as much as you can, then you might come up with a small tax increase and designate it all to the roads. Larry Armstrong, mayor of Hayden
There are definitely places in the budget to cut costs. But will that be enough? I don’t know. You take that $30 million that District 1 has estimated it would take to asphalt all the roads in the district – what’s the total county budget this year? 17 million? (Ans: Yes.) You can’t get 30 million out of 17 million. You have to work at this problem like a puzzle. You can’t tax people enough to fix the roads. You have to work on economic development and expand the tax base, and that’s not a quick fix. I read one economic study that said there is $27 million in purchasing power that leaves West Blount County every year and goes to Cullman and Gardendale. To catch up with our tax collections, we’ve got to somehow capture those taxes. You can’t tax people directly enough to fix the roads. They’re struggling too much already. It’s a problem we’ve got to solve over the long term. We won’t see it solved in our lifetime. Richard Spraggins, Blount County engineer, 1981-2010
I believe there needs to be some kind of increase in the 7-cent gas fund. That’s the account that can be applied to all expenditures related to the the road department. It’s not restricted at all. It can be applied to all general operations expenses – salaries, materials, paved roads, dirt roads, equipment, engineering – everything related to maintaining and improving roads and bridges. (ED. Spraggins continued to say that a statewide gas tax may be proposed in the next session of the Legislature, but it is not known yet what conditions will be specified concerning the use of such revenues, if the measure passes. For example, it is not known whether proceeds could be applied to purely county roads – those that have not ever received state/federal funding. If the proceeds were designated to the 7-cent fund, as Spraggins suggests, they could be spent on all county roads.) Henry Pate, Blount County Commissioner, 1990-1994
Can you do all the paving needed by cost-cutting and streamlining, without raising more revenue? No, that’s a fallacy. Nobody wants their government services cut. You’ve got to have more revenue. I was always accused of being a Democratic Republican, but someone down there is going to have to produce a few more male hormones, and step up and do the job. Only way to get more revenue is to strike gold, or oil – or raise taxes. You’re just foolin’ yourself if you think you can get enough by cutting expenses. Somebody’s gonna have to bite the bullet. That’s all there is to it. You’ve got to solve the problem of not having enough money to do what needs to be done. Solve that problem and the rest will take care of itself.