A few months back I wrote a piece discussing infrastructure challenges now being faced by all Americans concerning roads and bridges. Presently, those in Washington are debating and avoiding such things as increasing the national gas tax, and the president’s budget proposal in the trillions of dollars.
While there are certainly big problems and decisions with federal highway funding, I want to share some information about the situation of local roads and bridges, and how they relate to the local taxpayer.
Ohio’s system of roads includes federal highways, principally funded by the federal government and maintained by the state’s department of transportation, and state routes that are funded and maintained by the state government.
All county roads, and bridges on township roads, are the responsibility of elected county commissioners and county engineers, and are primarily funded by Ohio taxes on fuel and license plates. Township roads are the responsibility of the elected Township Trustees, and are also funded by fuel and license taxes. Finally, the municipal streets in cities and incorporated villages are the responsibility of those respective local governments and are mostly funded by the same state fuel and license taxes.
The federal and state highways are normally considered primary roads, while county and township roads are considered secondary roads. The streets in municipalities are the responsibility of that particular village or city, but those that carry state highways receive partial additional funding through the state government.
Although the primary funding for local roads and streets is a portion of the fuel tax and license fees collected by the state and paid each month to the locals, there are, and have been other funding sources. Local permissive license fees have been legislated since the late 1960s, and can be enacted (imposed) by counties, townships, villages or cities in $5 increments up to $15 per vehicle.
Local government funds which are portions of the Ohio state income tax designated for local governments also supply road and street funding for townships, villages and cities. Additionally, the former Ohio estate tax, of which 80 percent of the revenue went to cities and townships, has been an important funding source for township trustees and municipalities for their roads and streets. Grant funds and loans can be awarded for specific improvement projects.
During the past three years, Ohio’s governor and Legislature have made major law changes, resulting in decreased funding to Ohio’s local roads and streets. Cuts of 50 percent were made in the local government fund to counties, townships and municipalities, which have lost nearly one half billion dollars, while the state sales tax rate was increased 0.25 percent. The Ohio estate tax was also eliminated.
This has all happened at a most difficult time for those responsible for the local roads and streets.
Ohio funding for county roads has increased from 8 to 25 percent over the past 25 years. During the same time, the cost of road resurfacing has increased 125 percent, and the cost of road salt, bridge construction materials, and others have followed suit. The Ohio fuel tax, last increased by 6 cents per gallon from 2003-05, has seen its collection steadily erode due to more fuel-efficient passenger cars, as well as electric and hybrid vehicles.
The abrupt shift in state funding policy creates a decision point for anyone remotely concerned with the future conditions of local roads and streets.
The concept of “sharing” state revenue with local governments began 80 years ago, which was the year after the first Ohio sales tax was passed in 1934. We are left to wonder if that 1935 promise has now been stamped with a 2011 expiration date.
If current intentions to further reduce or abolish the state income tax become reality, the remaining portion of the local government fund will disappear.
It then logically follows that if large portions of sales taxes paid by Ohioans will no longer be shared by the state government, then the revenue must either be replaced, or all locals should be told that they must now fend for themselves.
Indications are very strong that the latter will eventually happen since there is no support by either the governor or Legislature for any increase in Ohio fuel tax, license fees, or any other source of local road and street funding.
This leaves those responsible for your local roads and streets with a tough choice: to either appeal to their constituencies for additional revenue to be used locally; or to allow the facilities and services to degrade.
As distasteful and irritating as the thought of increased taxation is to most people, especially after hikes in the state sales tax and CAUV (Current Agricultural Use Value) farmland taxes, a dilemma is created: “Do those responsible for local roads and streets have an obligation to ask for higher taxes and, if denied, allow the public investment to suffer; rather than to not ask and allow the same result?”
Parts of road management that are legal obligations, and those which prevent or decrease potential liability to taxpayers cannot be ignored. Snow and other obstructions must be removed from public roads and grass and brush must be controlled, especially at intersections. Regulatory and warning signs, pavement markings, guardrails and culverts must be maintained.
Bridges must be capable of carrying legal loads, or else posted with load limits or completely closed to travel. Severe failure of a road’s surface or any other hazard to the traveling public must be quickly repaired or eliminated.
Things that could suffer or cease due to insufficient funding for rural roads are the treatment of icy pavements, periodic road resurfacing, bridge maintenance and construction, and spot safety improvements on roads, Different things could be affected on municipal streets.
Anyone charged with the responsibility of local roads and streets should be providing information to constituents regarding available revenues, cost histories of materials, equipment and labor, and exactly how their funds are spent. They should also seek input about the priorities and expectations of the public as we go forward.
Without accurate knowledge, those paying the taxes are never comfortable paying more, and without a chance to decide, they are never convinced that a correct decision was made.
Jim Surber is the Darke County engineer. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University and a columnist for The Highland County Press.