Candidates for judge share road fund views

Published on Sunday, 9 February 2014 22:16 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

County roads could lead to victory and defeat for candidates vying for Smith County Judge and Commissioners.

Discussion of road planning and funding continue to be major talking points in the Republican primary races for Smith County Commissioners Court. The policy topic has been central to the County Judge race featuring two-term incumbent Joel Baker and challenger John Furlow.

Earlier this week, Baker presented the court with information listing Smith County’s place among counties with regard to road mile inventories. Smith County ranks 10th among 254 counties in the number of road miles maintained, 1,178. That’s enough blacktop and oil-dirt road miles to stretch to Cleveland, Ohio.

Smith County’s property tax rate is 9 cents less at 32 cents per $100 valuation than the second lowest rate, 41 cents per $100 in Harris County, among the 10 counties. Harris County maintains 4,209 miles of roads, most among the group.

The county has the 21st lowest property tax rate in the state.

Commissioners said Smith County’s place on the list is important to the discussion of Road and Bridge funding. Furlow said the numbers give court members something to “pat themselves on the backs about” but is little more than another excuse.

Smith County’s Road and Bridge Department was cut 37 percent in 2010, to $6.85 million from a peak funding level of $10.7 million in 2009. The cuts to road and bridge were among about $7.8 million in expenditure reductions that year.

Before the cuts, the county attempted to address 100 miles of major road improvement projects annually based on in-house assessments and a road priority lists. Maintenance and extending road life also was addressed.

Since the cuts, the county has been in “maintenance only” mode, which includes patching roads, addressing drainage and extending road lives rather than major projects and overlays.

Some Road and Bridge funding has been restored during recent budgets, but money remains significantly lower than the two years prior to the cuts.

Commissioner Jeff Warr said the information is important and relevant to the conversation about how the community wants to fund county roads.

“It’s good to know. It shows what we face, and what we’re working with,” Commissioner Jeff Warr said after Baker’s presentation. “I think a lot of people would be surprised to see where we are.”

Furlow has criticized Baker and the court for the lack of long-term strategic planning for county roads. Baker said the county’s plan to address prioritized roads fell victim to the recession.

The county is seeking a road engineer to direct Road and Bridge, he said. The county also is preparing to receive bids from consulting firms specializing in creation of comprehensive road assessments and analysis.

Assessments would include determining individual road conditions, and how much it would cost to improve them. Traffic volumes, safety, project priority and ensuring congruity throughout implementation of the plan would be included in the analysis.

Baker hopes the consultant could deliver its analysis by the time the budget process begins in early summer but the county has yet to enter the bid process by advertising a Request for Qualifications. Consultants with Florida-based Reynolds, Smith and Hills Inc. made a presentation to the court on Jan. 21 and said an assessment would take six to nine months.

Furlow said plans to hire an engineer and consultant and create a long-term plan are politically convenient but the court has had ample time to do both.

The information “clouds the subject because at the end of the day we don’t have a plan or an engineer,” he said. “Action is missing in the process.”

Instead of facing the funding problem, Furlow said the county slipped into a “reactionary” maintenance mode. Furlow continues to point toward the last assessment of county roads in 2008, which rated 71 percent of county roads as “bad or poor.” Improving road standards were estimated to cost about $17 million at the time.

Baker said the analysis and road engineer will direct the road program that will ultimately be put into action, but he hopes public discussions will determine how to pay for it.

PAY TO PAVE

When a plan is produced it will take dollars to implement. Costs associated with building and maintaining roads have steadily risen with oil prices.

It costs $171,285 to completely rework and overlay one mile of asphalt road (without addressing possible base issues). It costs $142,643 to prepare (fill potholes, compact and level), then overlay one mile of asphalt road. It costs $50,000 to rebuild one mile of oil/dirt road.

“The whole issue will be funding,” said Precinct 2 incumbent Cary Nix. “I’m all for planning, but it’s not worth anything if you don’t have money to get the job done.”

Commissioners and candidates have hinted about several funding options.

Nix said discussions could lead to a bond proposal, much like the jail expansion, or dedicating a portion of the property tax rate to roads. City dwellers would be less apt to support money going to county roads because they may not use them often, he said. If the court dedicates pennies to roads, they have to find the pennies within the current tax rate or raise taxes, he said.

No elected official wants to say they would consider raising taxes while campaigning. But several of them, including Nix, are open to it being part of the discussion with voters.

Barry Barnett, Nix’s challenger, said he was “very surprised” by the numbers Baker presented.

He said he didn’t want to make county roads the political football it has always been during county races. But he understands the county is behind and it will take millions of dollars to catch up and is “open to all options.”

“But in the end, we’re talking about (taxpayer) dollars,” he said. “They need to be part of the discussion.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said Smith County’s place on the list would be an important part of the dialogue moving forward. She expects the court to engage the public when cost assessments become available and the county engineer makes recommendations. She said Road and Bridge, the Texas Department of Transportation, representatives from Smith County municipalities, residents and other stakeholders should be part of the dialogue.

Roads haven’t been much of a conversation piece in her Precinct 4 race against former city councilman Donald Sanders. Much of the precinct lies within the city limits and has the fewest miles of county roads.

Sanders said county roads and drainage are concerns for residents. He said he was aware of the county’s neglect but was not aware of financial details and discussions regarding its road system.

Smith County budgeted 9.3 percent of all expenditures to county roads this year, according to the Auditor’s Office. Other counties on the list dedicated between 2.7 percent (Travis County, $618.6 million in expenditures, $16.8 million for road and bridge, 1,209 miles) and 15.2 percent (Montgomery County, $184.6 million in expenditures, $28.1 million for road and bridge, 2,000 miles) of their funding to county roads. Travis County’s property tax rate is 49 cents per $100. Montgomery County’s rate is 48 cents per $100.

ROAD TO SOMEWHERE

Commissioners and candidates agree the first step to a long-term road solution is determining what the county is facing and, as Baker put it, “the best plan of attack.”

Baker said there are numerous options for the court to consider, including the Transportation Reinvestment Zone, which would capture money from rising valuations along a two-mile corridor around Toll 49. The county and the North East Regional Mobility Authority would divide revenues created within the investment zone.

Commissioners want a significant amount of the revenue to be dedicated to county roads, but details, including how to divvy the proceeds, will be sticking points and possibly determine whether the zone is created.

Baker said a bond proposal would allow the county to address roads in “one fell swoop” or sooner than later. Because the county has addressed much of its facility needs with $10 million in improvements in recent years as part of its “pay-go” capital improvement program, it could be a consideration to use the fund to address roads on a pay-go basis. But that would take time, he said.

There also has been a discussion among community leaders regarding a “road tax,” Baker said. State law allows counties to place the local road tax option before voters much like a bond proposal up to 15 cents per $100 valuation.

Road funding could be addressed with multiple options, Baker said.

There also will be discussion about using private contractors, rather than road and bridge manpower and equipment for projects.

“It’s all in the discussion phase,” Baker said. “People get uncomfortable when you talk about taxes, but we operate very conservatively here. We’re low debt and have a low tax rate.”

Furlow said it’s too early to talk about how the county could or would fund a more extensive road improvement/maintenance program. He said funding roads will “always be an issue” because they are a perpetual cost.