The phone keeps ringing, and the staff at the Boone County Public Works Department keeps picking it up.
“There’s a sign missing.”
“This road needs grading because of the rain.”
“Winter is coming, and this road needs to be sealed.”
“The trucks have torn up a part of the road, creating potholes.”
Within a recent two-week period alone, Public Works received 70 calls from residents requesting maintenance on their roads. That’s an average of seven calls each day. Within the next two weeks, 41 of those 70 requests had been dealt with and closed.
Chip Estabrooks, maintenance operations manager, said the Public Works Department puts the requests in a “pecking order” based on urgency, with safety issues on top. The department does its best to respond in a timely manner, but crews also must attend to scheduled daily work. The crews just finished their annual chip-and-seal operation, for example. The application of an oil-and-rock surface to 80 miles of roads in Boone County required eight vehicles from the fleet and 15 workers for about eight weeks.
“This is stuff we react to,” Estabrooks said, referring to residents’ requests, “but we are still going around and generating our own work.”
While the number of residents’ calls varies with the weather — on some stormy nights Public Works receives more than 25 calls — the department rarely catches up. Estabrooks said his crews are often overwhelmed.
“We see a bigger workload than the funding and the people we have to take care of the issues,” Estabrooks said.
Over the past 15 years, Boone County has worked to modernize its road system. Voters first approved Proposition 1, a half-cent sales tax for roads, in 1993, which has since generated more than $127 million. Voters agreed to extend the same tax for another 10 years in 1998 through Proposition 2. Since the renewal, the county has paved about 100 miles of gravel roads.
But it’s not enough, county officials say. They’re asking for another 10-year extension, which voters will decide on in the Nov. 6 election. If the tax doesn’t pass, officials warn, the rollback of 24.25-cents in property taxes in exchange for the road sales tax will shoot back up. And even if the road tax extension does pass, they plan to spend the next several months exploring options for an additional source of revenue.
Initially, the goal of the half-cent sales tax was to upgrade gravel roads to hard surfaces. Now the county is struggling to preserve what it has, which becomes more difficult as maintenance costs rise. Even more challenging is the need for major road projects on Columbia’s urban fringe, where rapid commercial and residential growth is creating a demand for more city-style streets such as Scott Boulevard and Missouri 763, to which the county contributes.
Boone County Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said current revenue can’t meet the demands.
“The expectations of people right around the cities is city living,” Miller said. “We’re not prepared to do that yet.”
In 1993, voters approved a five-year, half-cent sales tax, in exchange for a promise that the county would pave at least 50 miles of roads and roll back the property tax levy from 29 cents to 4.75 cents per $100 assessed valuation. That meant the owner of a home valued at $200,000 would pay only about $18 in property taxes per year instead of the previous $110.
Voters renewed the deal in 1998.
Revenue from the half-cent sales tax amounts to 76 percent of Public Works’ annual budget. In 2006 alone, it generated about $11.5 million.
The tax arrangement has been a boost for cities and towns within Boone County. Because cities receive a share of the property taxes the county collects, they would have lost money with the rollback. Instead, county commissioners created a revenue replacement program that gives cities and towns 1.5 times the amount of money they got before the rollback. The city of Columbia, for example, received $15.4 million in revenue replacement from 1994 through 2006, according to the county Public Works Department.
Another component of the program, revenue sharing, gives cities money for specific road projects. During the first five years of the tax, the “Grants to Cities” program allocated a total of $200,000 for specific road and street projects. When the tax was renewed, the county began to distribute more money through revenue sharing. Public Works now funnels 18 percent of its budget to cities to address their individual road needs.
The amounts given by Public Works are roughly based on population. In 2006, Columbia received $300,000 to put toward the $2.9 million extension of Chapel Hill Road from Scott Boulevard to Gillespie Bridge Road. Harrisburg got $18,000 to finish paving D.C. Lane and Craig View Drive. Centralia won $80,000 for the second phase of its reconstruction of Randolph Street.
The lucrative arrangement for cities is one reason for the popularity of the sales tax.
Ken Pearson, Boone County presiding commissioner, said the public generally tends to prefer sales taxes over property taxes.
“Taxpayers would see it as, ‘It’s reducing my property tax,’ and the people who are shopping here are helping to pay for the sales tax for roads,” Pearson said.
The Centralia Special Road District manages 51 miles of roads outside Centralia’s city limits using the proceeds of the county road tax and an additional sales tax paid by everyone who shops within the district’s boundaries.
Gary Reidel, presiding commissioner of the road district, said the countywide sales tax has allowed the road district to do things it otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do, such as applying new blacktop to the deteriorating Ball Road and paving part of Rangeline Road, where the gravel surface was succumbing to heavy traffic.
Reidel said the road district has reached its limit for blacktop under the current revenue system, but he knows citizens want more.
“If everyone had their wishes, everyone in the district would like their road blacktopped,” Reidel said. “But it’s not a doable thing at this point in time.”
Boone County is now responsible for 803 miles of roads, compared with 792 miles of roads in 1998. Sixty-one percent of those miles are gravel, 26 percent asphalt, 9 percent chip-and-seal and 4 percent concrete.
Gravel roads are the cheapest to maintain but require more frequent attention. The cost of gravel maintenance adds up in areas with high traffic.
Roads in high-traffic areas are prioritized for paving, but even asphalt roads require expensive and regular maintenance.
“Asphalt doesn’t mean you’re done with it,” Pearson said. “After seven or eight years you have to seal it. This helps preserve it so it doesn’t fall apart or start disintegrating.”
The cost of maintaining roads, whether they’re gravel, asphalt or some other surface, is skyrocketing. In 1998, for example, it cost $18 per ton to buy, haul and lay down asphalt, county officials said. The price these days is $67 per ton, a nearly 400 percent increase, in large part because of the rising costs of oil and gasoline.
The county’s 488 miles of gravel roads also occasionally require new rock and grading. The gravel budget varies from year to year, depending on need. In 2005, it was $1.31 million. This year, it’s $1.7 million.
The Public Works Department is also spending significantly more on fuel. In 1999, it spent $100,000 on gasoline. This year, the budget for fuel has risen to $410,000.
David Mink, Boone County Public Works director, said crews burn a lot of fuel by traveling to roads all over the county.
“There’s a lot of moving around of equipment,” Mink said. “It’s a challenge we face every year.”
The Design and Construction Division of the Public Works Department is intended to work on new road projects. However, 54 percent of the department’s budget goes toward maintenance, and new projects sometimes fall by the wayside.
Mink said the Design and Construction Division now spends a significant amount of time doing major maintenance, such as storm-water projects within residential subdivisions. The surge of maintenance has caused some new road projects to be delayed indefinitely.
One example is a planned extension of Hackberry Road north of Columbia. Planners wanted to stretch the road east to connect with Missouri 763, also known as Range Line Street, so that residents of Clearview Subdivision and other homes in the area would have another way in and out of their neighborhood.
In 2004, Public Works budgeted $50,000 to relocate large cross-country electrical lines to accommodate the road construction. It never happened, though. The following year, administrators decided to postpone the Hackberry Road project and instead to put that money toward a new bridge over Perche Creek at McBaine Avenue. The bridge work hasn’t started because the county is still seeking easements from surrounding property owners.
Tom Pearl, who lives along Hackberry Road, said the extension would be a good thing. To get to his street now, he said, drivers have to get on Brown Station Road, turn north on Clearview Road, then work their way back toward Hackberry, traveling in a big square around their destination.
“There’s one way in and one way out,” Pearl said. “Just think, the fire department has to go all the way around.”
Skip Elkin, Northern District commissioner, said he thinks the Public Works Department could do more with the money it has. Specifically, the county could save money by reducing its reliance on contractors, he said.
“Our new construction budget just doesn’t go as far as it did,” Elkin said. “... We could do more in-house projects. We could stretch our dollar further.”
In 2006, the Design and Construction Division spent $2.7 million on outside construction services. Mink said projects are contracted because of time constraints or because they require special equipment, such as cranes, that the department doesn’t have.
Shane Creech, manager of the design and construction division, said there are many things to consider when comparing contract work with in-house work, such as the length of time and amount of labor necessary to complete the project. Creech said it’s best to look at projects individually and within the larger context of the department’s challenges.
Low-water crossings, for example, used to be designed in-house, but that work was given to contractors this year because of vacancies in the division, Creech said.
“I have the ability to make my staff somewhat larger by sending projects out to consultants,” Creech said. “Instead of having one or two engineers working on projects, they can focus on citizens’ requests or work orders.”
Creech added that his engineers formally review the designs the consultants complete and are able to bring a fresh set of eyes to it.
The comparative costs of contracting work and doing work in-house is uncertain. Creech said Public Works hasn’t done a formal analysis to examine the two.
On the edge
Perhaps the greatest growth in demand on Boone County and its Public Works Department is happening on the periphery of Columbia. As the city expands, it creates a need for more urban-type roads to accommodate sharp increases in traffic and to maintain a logical road network.
The problem is that the county, for the most part, doesn’t build urban roads. Two exceptions are Obermiller and Gillespie Bridge roads, which have been transformed from narrow gravel lanes into major concrete thoroughfares. According to the Public Works Department, the approximate total cost, including design and construction, of Gillespie Bridge Road was $800,764, and the approximate total cost of Obermiller Road was $1.2 million.
Miller explained that the profile of an urban street is quite different from a rural road and that there are many components of urban roads that the county doesn’t do, including curbs and gutters, sidewalks, pedways and medians.
“It’s much more than upgrading a gravel road to a hard surface,” Miller said. “The cost is extremely different to do an urban, city kind of road.”
Although the county doesn’t do the work itself, it has funneled sales tax money toward major construction projects, such as Scott Boulevard and Missouri 763, which also receive city and state funding. But without a new source of tax revenue, those sorts of contributions will prove difficult, county officials said.
Compounding the problem is a potential reduction in funding from the Missouri Department of Transportation on such cooperative projects.
The Transportation Department is bracing for diminished resources. In 2004, voters passed Amendment 3, which redirected half of all vehicle sales tax from the state’s general fund to road construction and improvements. Amendment 3 allowed the Department of Transportation to leverage funding through bond issues.
“In 2010, that bubble of bond money will go away, and MoDOT will have less money to distribute,” Ben Reeser, Department of Transportation finance manager, said.
The department expects its revenue to drop from $1.2 billion in the 2008 fiscal year to less than $600 million in 2010.
Peter Rahn, Department of Transportation director, published an article in “Limestone News” about the loss of revenue, in which he wrote: “Our looming financial woes are largely due to a stagnant funding source further complicated by increasing construction, maintenance and fuel costs.”
Pearson said that means city and county governments will be responsible for more of the costs for work on state roads.
Dave Griggs, a former county commissioner who is advocating renewal of the sales tax, agreed.
“The significant potential change in MoDOT’s ability to deal with projects could put a much greater burden on the community,” Griggs said.
Pearson, the commission’s liaison to the Public Works Department, held a strategic planning session in April to identify the department’s goals, most of which were broadly defined. Twenty-six citizens and county staff members attended and expressed opinions. A formal report on the session compiled by National Information Solutions Cooperative numbered and categorized responses.
When asked to identify “those factors you believe are/could cause funding levels for maintenance for roads to change over the next 10 years,” respondents chose “rising costs” and “community growth” as the top two.
Pearson also met with city representatives and chambers of commerce to discuss road projects.
From both the strategic planning session and the meeting with city representatives, Pearson said the commission learned there are a lot of infrastructure needs and not enough money to meet them. Ultimately, the groups agreed on the need to renew the sales tax.
Residents and community leaders formed a 26-person committee called Citizens to Renew the Road and Bridge Fund to lobby for approval of the tax. Pearson and other county officials aren’t allowed to spend county money advocating for the tax; they can only provide information and answer questions.
Griggs, who is also treasurer of the citizen group, said the committee’s task “is to make sure the voters understand the need, the results and the ramifications if this tax doesn’t pass.”
One consequence of failure, Griggs said, would be a return to at least the 29-cent property tax levy and perhaps an increase to 34 cents, the maximum the state allows the county to charge without a citizen vote. But even that would leave the Public Works Department about $6 million to $7 million short of current funding, Griggs said.
Miller said that situation would be dire.
“We would barely be able to maintain what we have today,” Miller said. “There would be no revenue sharing. It would really hurt all of our communities.”
Griggs said he doesn’t worry that the tax might fail because of a lack of support. Rather, he worries there’s a lack of concern.
“It’s the only issue on a countywide ballot, and it’s not a terribly exciting issue,” he said. “Everyone will assume that it’s going to pass, and no one will go vote.”
When the county commission began its discussion about the renewal of the half-cent road sales tax earlier this year, it originally thought about proposing an additional tax specifically designated for capital improvement projects. That would allow Public Works to focus revenue from the existing half-cent tax on maintenance and to use the capital improvement project tax exclusively for new projects. Kay Murray, Boone County treasurer, even floated the idea of a property tax dedicated to road projects, saying that would allow the county to issue bonds and get a more immediate infusion of cash.
The commission decided in August, however, to postpone any proposed capital improvement project tax.
“We’re nowhere near ready to go to the voters with a plan,” Miller said. “We need to have all the details worked out on a capital tax: what it’s going to do and what it’s going to cost.”