Doing more with less

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series that examines the local impact of the state Road Use Tax Fund.

It takes just a short drive from Webster City to see why the Hamilton County supervisors support an increase in the state Road Use Tax Fund.

About a mile off of Highway 17 on 280th Street lies the Beaver Bridge. It’s a one-lane wooden bridge that connects two gravel roads over the Boone River. Time has been harsh to the bridge which was originally built in 1902. Metal side rails are twisted and rusted. Rumbles echo off of the river as cars pass over its aging boards.

At the regular meeting of the supervisors on Tuesday, Hamilton County Engineer Danny Waid called repairing the bridge a priority. The declining condition of the bridge has put it on a shortened six-month inspection cycle.

“A UPS or Federal Express truck should not cross it,” Supervisor David Young said. “I mean, that’s the level of service we’re at for that bridge.”

Waid said the bridge could be deemed unsafe and closed in the near future and a detour would take upward of 10 miles. Supervisor Doug Bailey said a bridge detour would not only be an economic issue for those who commute or haul goods over the bridge. Emergency vehicles would also have to travel those extra miles.

Despite the dire need for repairs, the funding for improvements just doesn’t exist. Waid estimated the cost of a maintenance project for the bridge at between $2.5 million and $3 million. Any plans to refurbish the Beaver Bridge would be in addition to 30 other road and bridge projects the County has planned through 2019.

Support for an increase

One source of funding for these projects is the state Road Use Tax Fund. The state taxes a flat 19 cents on ethanol-blended gasoline and other amounts on other types of fuel. A portion of that money ends up in the hands of Iowa counties. However, Waid said that funding is woefully short. That 19 cents per gallon tax has remained the same since 1989.

Recently, Wes Sweedler, chairman of the supervisors, and other officials in the county signed a letter in support of raising the state fuel tax by 10 cents phased in over three years. Waid said the increase would still be less than if the tax kept up with inflation. From 1989, he said that cost adjusted for inflation would be over 37 cents.

“We have not kept up with what the cost of doing business is today,” Waid said.

In lieu of that funding, the Supervisors have used technology and attrition to remain financially sound. For instance, Waid said the Engineer’s Office is using GPS technology to do surveying work. That system reduces what was once up to a four-man survey crew down to one person. As such, employees have also been cut. Waid said his office, which had as many as 40 employees at one time, is now down to 30.

“We’ve accomplished efficiencies and we continue to look for that on a daily basis where we can do as much as we’re doing with less staff and resources,” Waid said. “Technology does help us in that regard, but truly you can only do so much.”

More usage

The county’s financial woes are further complicated by an increase in service demand. The need for snow removal, gravel road grating and general maintenance has gone up as county roads are used more. Waid said that as farmers went from tractors and wagons to using semi-trucks right off the field, the road system has largely remained the same.

Livestock producers and ethanol plants have also added stress to these gravel roads, according to Sweedler. He said the county is having to consider moving from a “more-with-less” approach to a “less-with-less” approach as these factors converge.

“We’re asked to provide increased service with less money. That’s frustrating,” Sweedler said. “We get lumped in with the DOT and we’re not the DOT. We receive our money from the same source so we get pulled into their questionable decisions on management.”

Raising the tax

Despite the high cost of gas, the Supervisors see this increase as necessary. Young said he’s generally against raising taxes. However, he sees the Road Use Tax as a user fee. Bailey said those who purchase gasoline and then use it on the roads are the ones paying for it. The increase, according to Bailey wouldn’t cause a lot of change in Hamilton County. He said adding 10 cents to the tax would help the county maintain roads, not widely improve them.

Still, Sweedler said maintaining the roads system that was passed down to them is a high priority. If no change to the tax comes through, those 30 projects that the county would like to see completed through 2019 could be delayed.

“If funding stays at its current levels, it’s questionable if we can fund this,” Sweedler said. “That’s really alarming.”