By TED CARTER
The organization that represents the boards of supervisors for Mississippi counties says counties need much more than a 10 percent share from a proposed $375 million annual allocation for roads and bridge maintenance.
The plan presented by a 24-member task force created by the Mississippi Economic Council would give counties and cities $75 million annually from the $375 million that would be raised from a combination of new motor fuel taxes, sales taxes and rental and car tag fees. While the Mississippi Association of Supervisors supports the recommendations from the task force, the report underestimates the amount of money needed to fix up local roads and bridges, said Steve A. Gray, the association’s director of governmental affairs.
By the time the $75 million is divvied up among 82 counties and several hundred cities, “counties may be able to chip seal (rock and tar, not asphalt) a half mile of road and put in one box culvert,” Gray said in an email.
“Then the question becomes, where is the return on investment? If car tags are going up, along with sales tax and gasoline tax, there must be a “real” return on investment for Mississippi counties, especially in rural Mississippi. We shouldn’t increase taxes and fees and have people still riding on gravel roads.”
The county needs, Gray claimed, “are actually greater than those of the state. County governments are responsible for more road maintenance than the state and municipalities combined.”
“Fairness” requires that counties get half, if not more, Gray said.
The MEC Blueprint Mississippi Transportation Infrastructure Task Force report conceded the plan would “not address all of the needs at the local level.” It emphasized, however, that the infusion of new revenue, combined with existing state funding, “would enable county and municipal leaders to address the roads and bridges that are in the worst condition.”
At the Oct. 28 meeting of the MEC task force, Association of Supervisors Executive Director Derrick Surrette made an unsuccessful motion to give counties and cities half of the money raised from the new fees and taxes. The motion did not receive a second from Shari Veazey, Mississippi Municipal League executive director, or any other task force member.
Veazey conceded in an email that addressing the “paving needs in our cities and towns would take significantly more” money. But her organization, she said, “is pleased to be included in the proposal.”
Kosciusko Mayor Jimmy Cockroft, current Mississippi Municipal League president, said he hopes the task force proposal will be viewed positively by leaders in the 300 communities the Municipal League represents, though he expects many in his organization will argue the allocation is not enough. “It is $75 million more than we got last year,” he said in a phone interview.
He said he will be eager to hear what the membership has to say at the League’s mid-winter meeting in January.
The 74 counties that responded to a task force survey reported that 48 percent of their roads are in poor or very poor condition. Only 5 percent of the county-maintained roads were reported in “very good” condition, the survey found. The 117 cities that responded to the survey say 60 percent of roads they maintain are in either poor or very poor shape.
The task force said annual inspections of locally maintained bridges by the Mississippi Department of Transportation made it easier to assess the condition of county and city bridges. The report noted the state has 2,989 local substandard bridges, including 2,200 posted for weight limits below weights they were designed to handle. Current costs to replace those bridges are estimated at $1.14 billion, the task force said.
Of city maintained bridges, the DOT has determined that 138 are functionally obsolete, 105 structurally deficient and 30 posted.
Of the deteriorating locally maintained bridges, 150 are closed to traffic, the task force report said.
The task force report acknowledged the scope of the maintenance backlog for 13,192 miles of locally owned roads deemed in “very poor condition,” estimating it would take $607 million to fix them.
Mississippi, the task force said, has 24,591 miles of state-owned highways that need either preventative maintenance, minor rehab or major rehab. The estimated cost: $2.23 billion.
As of June, the state owned 936 bridges that are in some state of disrepair, of which 191 are posted. The report estimated repair costs at $2.63 billion.
Counties get about $20 million a year from MDOT’s Local Systems Bridge Program and the Office of State Road Construction, Gray said. Split 82 ways, that “money goes fast,” he added. “Outside of State funding, the only true revenue counties have are ad valorem taxes, which in some cases, can barely cover the operating budget in some counties.”
Legislators are expected to decide on funding proposals and share allocations in the 2016 session. Gray said lawmakers are more likely to gain the support of taxpayers for new taxes and fees “if they know their local roads and bridges that they commute on everyday will receive the necessary maintenance, repair and upgrades needed.”
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