Blaine County voters will likely be asked again next May to approve a two-year property tax levy to help fund road and bridge maintenance.
The Road and Bridge Department has been running a maintenance-funding deficit of $300,000 to $500,000 annually, and its reserve will be depleted this year. Due to a commissioners’ resolution passed in 2007, the county’s general fund money cannot be used for the Road and Bridge Department, and federal and state gas tax revenue has been declining.
The department’s budget was cut a further $200,000 for fiscal year 2015.
In a very low-turnout election last May, county voters narrowly defeated a proposed two-year levy of up to $5.24 million per year. The levy proceeds would have been shared with the county’s cities.
During a meeting Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to place the matter before voters again, and discussed whether to do so this November or in May 2015. They agreed that a November date would bring out more voters, but decided that more time is needed to discuss the issue with city leaders and voters. To meet the deadline set by state code for a November ballot, the language would have to be finalized by the first week in September.
“We want the public to understand exactly how the funds will be used,” Commissioner Larry Schoen said. “If we wait until May, it will provide us with a way to really engage with the public.”
Commissioner Angenie McCleary said a May election would also give the county an opportunity to find out whether the Legislature will increase the state gas tax or provide another source of funding for road maintenance. However, she said, polls with legislators have indicated that any such action is unlikely.
Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said the county should educate the public on its long-term plans for road and bridge funding.
“We should take the time to decide what we need, how much it’s going to cost, where it will get us and whether it will be a sustainable level of funding,” he said.
Greenberg said the county should minimize the level of funding requested, but not to the point that it has to go back to voters again soon with another proposed levy.
Schoen disagreed, saying the deficit in road and bridge funding is probably a long-term situation.
“I’m not going to say to somebody, ‘We’ll do this levy and we’ll hope that we won’t have to come back to you again,’” he said.
Instead, he said, the county should show competence in managing the proceeds that it raises.
To be placed on the May ballot, language for a proposed levy would have to be finalized by March. McCleary said that time will pass quickly, and she suggested that the county begin discussions with the cities as soon as possible to determine whether they want to share in the levy proceeds, which would require a higher levy amount. Greenberg said he had heard from some voters who opposed the previous levy that the cities’ plans were too extravagant.
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress