There’s no doubt the many of the roadways in Morrow County are in sad shape - even before this past winter wreaked havoc with extended periods of sub-zero temperatures.
To address the issue, the first round of two public hearings was held Wednesday by the Morrow County Commissioners to discuss the need for three $5 license taxes to support road system maintenance in the county.
“I think this issue probably came to a head this Spring when we attended a township trustees meeting and had a discussion on roads,” Commissioner Tom Whiston said. “The Township Trustees Association actually took a vote that passed unanimously to have commissioners put it on (license taxes).”
County Engineer Randy Bush and Bart Dennison were on hand from the engineer’s office to answer questions and explain the situation with deteriorating roadways and lack of funding to keep them repaired.
“About 30 years ago, the state legislature passed a bill that gave county commissioners the authority to place either two $5 permissive license plate fees, by ballot or by an emergency resolution,” Bush said. “At that time, there was no action taken (locally), but surrounding counties did pass it.” Knox, Delaware and, most recently, Richland County have the tax in place.
Bush said the roads eventually became so bad, the commissioners passed two $5 taxes in 1989, but there was a referendum and ‘the people voted it off.’
“I can truthfully say if it had been left on, well, our roads wouldn’t be perfect, but all that money we could have spent on the roads was lost,” Bush said. “Usually, in counties with a better highway system, it’s because people are paying local taxes to generate that. In Morrow County does not have any permissive tax on a county level.”
Bennington, S. Bloomfield and Lincoln townships do have a $5 permissive tax in place, but Morrow County (as a whole) has no extra revenue beyond what’s generated through the gasoline tax and Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Bush explained, noting the gas tax decreases every year.
“Just drive the roads and you can see we are falling farther and farther behind,” he said.
Dennison noted not only has the gas tax revenue gone down (due to more fuel efficient vehicles) but the price of road materials has increased substantially.
“Back in 2005, we could get asphalt for $29 a ton,” he recalled. “Now it’s $65 - $70 a ton. Gas was $1.50, and now it’s almost $4.00 a gallon.”
Redi-mix concrete has increased in cost as well as a 214% rise in reinforcing steel. According to the engineer’s office’s figures, Morrow County has the 27th largest road mileage but the 9th smallest budget to support it.
“We’re operating with the same budget (as in 2005-2006) but the people expect to get the same quality as they did back then,” Dennison stated. “It can’t happen.”
“We can pledge that every bit of this new money will be spent on the roads,” Bush told commissioners. “The first two taxes will generate about $265,000. Not a lot of money, but it adds up. It’s a step in the right direction.”
The amount generated by a $5 tax is based on the number of vehicles in a county, and Bush said Morrow County has about 35,000 vehicles. Prices goes up but the budget doesn’t, he said, and the county gets less and less capital improvements.
Citizen Darin Seiber asked about increasing the amount of tar in the stone when the chip and seal is done to help ‘even out’ the surface when the roadway gets warm.
Bush said a lot of the older roads were built with different materials and the EPA now regulates what can be put down - and when. The roadwork has to be done according their specs now. He also noted that because Morrow County is a ‘bedroom community;’ its roads get a lot more traffic than other rural areas.
“I checked with the county commissioners association and found out the [license tax] has never passed when put on the ballot,” Whiston said. “After the passage of the DD and the OSU Extension levies, we are now faced with what I think is the foremost issue in the county. We need to address the tangible costs, citing damage to vehicles that travel the pothole-laden roads and response time for emergency vehicles. This is an option that is available to us. I think this is long overdue and is actually our only avenue at this point to address this issue.”
The state is giving Morrow County $2.3 million to repair and replace some of its bridges, beginning this year. But when it comes to roadways, the county is on its own.
Bush said there are actually four $5 permissive license plate taxes that were created by the state legislature years ago: the first one is the [1967 ORC 4504.02], the two county taxes ORC 4504.15 and 4504.16, and the one the townships can put on (Bennington, S. Bloomfield and Lincoln townships). He noted Gilead Township’s roads are supported by a road levy.
“This was the very first levy put on in 1967,” Bush noted. “Franklin County put it on right away as well as Knox and Marion, but Morrow County did not. The Village of Cardington did and has had it since. Edison did as well at a later date. So they will not pay this same $5 again, but will pay the other two $5 taxes if enacted. The first two (the set) will generate $265,000 and this one (ORC 4504.02) will generates enough to total over $480,000.”
Bush said with the new monies added to what’s currently available, ‘we can essentially double what we are able to do.’
“It’s not a lot in the overall scheme of things, but it’s alot year to year,” he noted.
Whiston said he spoke with the director of the Ohio Public Works who told him the money generated by the license taxes can be used as a match for grants applied for through that organization. Also, Whiston said, having those license plates fees in place entitles the county to bonus points towards the county’s scoring, which is a big factor in whether you get money (from the state).
“If you have better roads, people and industry will want to come here,” Dennison pointed out. “If you have more cars and people, it generates more money. It’s just going to be better and better. But you have to fix your infrastructure first to get people to come here.”
Commissioner Tom Harden spoke of a resident who owned land in Morrow County and intended to build on it, but because of the condition of the road it was located on, he sold the lot and built in Richland County instead.
“In the interest of public safety, I think it has become a real issue,” Whiston said. “I think it’s time for the commissioners to take action and do what we can.”
Whiston said because the issue is becoming worse around the state and from a funding standpoint, he believes the state legislature is looking at an additional license plate fee(s) they may ‘put on’ for local commissioners to institute, because of declining revenues.
“People think because they are paying more for gas, [the county engineer] is getting more money,” the commissioner stated. “Randy isn’t getting more money to fix roads, but his costs have gone up significantly.”
“I realize local taxes is the only place where [citizens] can say, ‘I’m tired of taxes,’” Bush acknowledged. “I don’t think people are really worried about the extra money, because if you talk to them, they think their real estate taxes got to roads. You’re paying so many taxes you don’t even realize, and people are fed up. When they come to the point of voting, this is more of a protest against all their taxes. They want better roads, and the gas tax and license plate fees are what funds that.
“We take very seriously the imposition of fees or taxes on people,” Whiston maintained. “I think the fact we got three levies passed is that people understand we are running this [the county] as a business as you would your household: responsibly and frugally, and we will continue to do so.”
Commissioner Miller said monies generated by the taxes would amount to about .7 of a [real estate] mill.
Whiston said the hearings are open to the public and the commissioners are more than willing to discuss the subject with residents. The final public hearings on these tax issues will be held Wednesday, June 4 in the commissioners’ meeting room in the Walnut Street building in Mt. Gilead at 9:30 and 9:45 a.m. A vote among the commissioners will be conducted at that time. Their decision must be submitted to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles by July 1, 2014 and, if passed, would not take effect until January 1, 2015.