County looking for solutions to road and bridge funding

Taxes, mill levy or greater expenditures in the future

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

Whether it is a ballot question for 2021, an added sales tax or a larger general fund burden, Gunnison County is exploring the persistent problem of how to better fund its road and bridges as its user base grows. Gunnison County commissioners met with public works officials last month in a work session to discuss options for more sustained funding, and determined that the three best possibilities are to take the issue to voters, to raise sales taxes or to make room in the budget for catching up on projects across a county with more acreage than people.

While grappling with the subject, commission chairperson Jonathan Houck noted that this has been an ongoing conversation for counties across the state for many years, because Colorado has some specific boundaries on where road infrastructure funding can and cannot come from.

“There are distinct challenges,” he said. “Road and bridge funding is essential, especially in a county of the geographic size that we have. We have a huge county with a smaller population. But we see an extensive use of resources that road and bridge is tasked with.” Houck said the increased traffic volume and patterns within the county magnified the gap in funding. “So let’s start figuring out what we can do.”

Public Works director Marlene Crosby reviewed several needs, including shoulder work to accommodate more pedestrians, and various bridge projects. Operations manager Sparky Casebolt also discussed shortfalls in pavement maintenance. “We wouldn’t just focus on one of these. But with our strategic goals, we are meeting a very small portion of those every year. Good maintenance plans say that you should chip seal every five to seven years…so we should be doing 20 miles per year. And we are doing maybe three to five,” he said.

Ballots, taxes or budgets
While stimulus funding, or state and federal legislation could help make a dent on county roadway funding, the road and bridge department has identified three options for more sustained, localized and long-term funds: county sales tax, a mill levy or some general fund expenditures.

Crosby pointed out that many other counties have the advantage of a mill levy for road and bridge funding, which adjusts over time.

“So they are not solely dependent on gas tax as their largest contributor to their budget,” she said, and with inflation and more efficient vehicles, the static gas tax is no longer sufficient. “Our [funding stream] obviously doesn’t change because it’s the gas tax from the early 90s. What changes is the cost of all the services, materials, labor, equipment, everything that we need to buy.”

Crosby recalled that the county has looked at ballot issues in the past, but shied away due to competing issues. “There’s always competition for the votes,” she said, such as the school district considering a large ballot issue this year. If the commissioners did want to consider this route, however, Crosby suggested an experienced consultant that could potentially help the county structure a successful ballot issue.

County manager Matthew Birnie said the department has spent almost a decade exploring its options. “In your strategic plan, there’s a result to see sustainable funding for road and bridge. And in our implementation plan, there’s a series of things to work through. The very last one was to recommend a ballot measure, and that’s where we are. We’ve lobbied the feds, and worked on state measures that have failed,” he said.

Crosby also said she is in favor of a dedicated sales tax, because everybody who visits and makes any purchases shares the cost. “And because there isn’t the sales tax on food, it protects the people on fixed incomes in our community,” she said.

Houck wanted to confirm that the tax option would be a county sales tax increase dedicated to road and bridge funding only, which Birnie confirmed would be half a percent.

Commissioner Roland Mason said he was concerned that voters in the north end of the valley may not like seeing sales taxes getting pushed closer to 13 percent when combined with higher town taxes.

The last option of tapping into the county’s general fund would have a double impact on the budget.

“There are many pieces of Colorado law that make funding road and bridge complicated,” said Birnie. “We can use general fund tax receipts [from local property taxes] for that, but if we do that we have to split it with town… we would have to take the same amount and give it to the city [of Gunnison]. And that would devastate our general fund.”

No clear path has been decided yet, but the county plans to collect more data on comparable mill levies in other counties, and to take inventory of current miles of road and what shape they are in.

Commissioner Liz Smith emphasized the need to explain and quantify the scale of the department’s needs to constituents no matter what the option is. “And then we need to be clear on what we are proposing, what we will be able to tackle with it,” she added.

“Considering our county roads, particularly the ones that are open most or all of the year, we could establish a need,” said Crosby. She said if none of these options get support, it may be time to begin triage on the road systems, and make some cuts to services like mag-chloride application, gravel and other maintenance.

“And quite frankly it’s an opportunity for folks to decide what kind of transportation system they want,” said Birnie. “And if they don’t want to support it, that’s okay. But that’s the answer when folks complain about the roads. There’s a limit to the revenue. I do hope some of these other state and federal efforts bear fruit, but we just don’t know that.”

“I really do believe we need to come to the people of this county with a sincere ask,” said Houck. “It is time to address this.”

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