County looks at sales tax to cover $45 million for roads and bridges

Staff Writer

County Engineer Steve Backowski said Morrison County needs to spend more than $45 million over five years to repair and replace old bridges, roads and culverts that are reaching a dangerous age. The problem? To make it happen, the county would need to increase revenue for infrastructure by $9.6 million.

“Current road and bridge funding is inadequate to support our future traffic demands and our road and bridge needs,” Backowski told the County Board Tuesday.

The issue for the older county roads, Backowski said, is the increasing amount of weight per axle which lessens the life of a road.

In addition, some sections of road near the end of their life expectancy, such as County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 21 from Upsala to the border with Stearns County, saw daily traffic increase by 56 percent from 1994 to 2013. Meanwhile on CSAH 8 from Trunk Highway 27 to the Crow Wing County border, traffic has doubled.

In addition, previous methods of strengthening the roads by adding material and then leaving each side steep, needs to be corrected as it is unsafe, Backowski said.

Finally, older bridges made of creosote soaked timber need to be replaced as they are starting to rot.

Other bridges with culverts underneath them are starting to rot and create giant holes in the road when washed away, like one on County Road 283, which failed during the morning commute a couple of years ago.

Backowski laid out three options for funding if the Board wanted to increase the Public Works Department’s revenue:

  • Increase the levy. With this, the cost to residents would be $1 million for every $1 million spent;
  • Borrow the money by bonding. This would mean increasing the levy as well, Backowski said, and the overall cost of every $1 million spent would be $1.3 million when interest is added; and
  • Introduce a county-wide half-cent sales tax. A study by the University of Minnesota said 19 percent of funds generated would come from non-residents, meaning to spend $1 million, residents would pay $810,000.

State law requires that the county’s sales tax only be used for transportation projects, unlike the local option sales tax the city of Little Falls is considering. It would include any product or service the state sales tax already includes and would not have to be approved at an election, also different than the one Little Falls is considering.

County Administrator Deb Gruber said it makes sense to look at the sales tax.

Commissioner Randy Winscher asked if the county didn’t look at the sales tax option, would the state hold that against the county if it looks for state funding.

“I know that this last legislative session, in transportation, that was a question they were asking, ‘Have you utilized the tools you’ve been given?’” Backowski said.

Commissioner Mike Wilson said he was in support of the sales tax, as it could help farmers and other high value property owners.

“This makes it equal to everyone so those people aren’t hit hard and those people who don’t pay taxes at all, will have to pay some tax toward this,” Wilson said.

Commissioner Mike LeMieur said he struggles with the idea of implementing a sales tax to pay for roadways, but agreed with the other commissioners that holding a public hearing to get input from residents is a good idea.

The commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing Wednesday, July 12, at 7 p.m. in the Board Room at the Morrison County Government. Center in Little Falls.

Board of Commissioners Briefs

In other business Tuesday, the Morrison County Board of Commissioners:

  • Learned Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf was dismissing the eviction case against a Little Falls woman living in a tax forfeited property, after she and her son provided a check that paid off what she owed the county in back taxes. The Board will approve returning the property’s deed to her at the next Board meeting.

The next meeting of the Morrison County Board of Commissioners is Tuesday, July 11, at 9 a.m. in the Board Room at the Morrison County Government Center.