When I look down my street or at the countryside as I make my way to Crookston on the regular basis required of a commissioner, I often ask the question: What do residents want most from the county?

The answer that keeps coming up is twofold — good roads and good law enforcement.

   When I look down my street or at the countryside as I make my way to Crookston on the regular basis required of a commissioner, I often ask the question: What do residents want most from the county?


    The answer that keeps coming up is twofold — good roads and good law enforcement.


    Most everything else, among the many services that they provide, isn’t so much in the forefront as roads and law enforcement. Many of those other things are taken for granted… until they are needed. Then, they become important, sometimes very, very important!


    But for today, let’s just talk about roads.


    The County Board, as reported earlier, is planning to sell $6 million in road construction bonds at its July 23 meeting. This money will allow projects in the current County State Aid Highway (CSAH) five-year improvement plan to be completed ahead of schedule, most by several years. And the move will save money since the interest cost for the bonds is expected to be in the area of 1 percent, while construction costs go up about 3 to 4 percent a year.

No tax liability


    These bonds will be repaid by directing $1.2 million from the $7.4 million apportionment that Polk County receives each year as its share of the 25.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax that is in the price at the pump. Thus, there’s no property tax liability for repayment. It’s a win-win situation since the county gets more mileage out of its construction dollar and we, as road users, get improved driving surfaces sooner.


    Highway funding is coming up short all over. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, at a recent information meeting in Bemidji, noted that it needs $32 billion over the next 10 years to maintain and improve the state highway system. Projected revenues in that period total just $18 billion.


    Counties have the same situation. Their needs going forward exceed expected revenues. That message was brought to the Legislature in hopes of getting more funding.


    Rather than raise the gas tax, the Legislature approved and the governor signed legislation that allows counties two options for generating more road funds. One is a $10 per vehicle wheelage tax. The second is a one-half cent sales tax.

Rock and a hard spot


    This legislation puts County Boards in a difficult situation. Refusal to initiate measures to raise more transportation money could be construed by the Legislature to mean that the need isn’t really that great. Legislators could say something like, “We gave you a chance to do something about the problem but apparently it wasn’t that serious.” At the same time, initiation of one or both of the options might not be that popular among county residents.


    Highway Engineer Rich Sanders would, of course, like passage of both the wheelage tax and the sales tax. His job is to build and maintain the transportation system in the county and he literally gushes over the things that could be accomplished with the additional money — the $300,000 a year (after exemptions) that would come from the $10 wheelage tax on the 48,000 vehicles in the county and the about $1.4 million that a half-cent sales tax would generate. This money could be used on both CSAH and other county road construction. To give commissioners an idea of the additional work that could be done with that extra money, Sanders has provided documentation to show the projects that could be accomplished.


    An unofficial survey of counties in the northwest region reveals that most, if not all, are considering approval of the wheelage tax. But they seem reluctant to endorse the sales tax option. Although no position is expected soon, initial discussions among Polk County commissioners might indicate that they are thinking along those same lines.


    Polk, like all other counties in the state, needs more money to maintain the road system… but at what cost? There’s a decision to be made.


    Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.