BUMPY ROADSPublished 11:25pm Friday, October 4, 2013
When sitting in a meeting with County Commissioner Joey Jackson and County Engineer Russell Oliver, it quickly becomes clear where their passions lie.
“Let me tell you something,” Jackson said. “Just imagine this. America used to be rated number one in infrastructure in the whole world. Now, we’re at fifteenth.”
“I know we’re talking about Pike County roads at the moment, but this really is a national problem,” Oliver said.
“And think about this,” Jackson continued. “There are only two countries in the world that have lower gas taxes in the world. Guess who they are.” He waited for a response. “Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”
“What the problem really comes down to is that we don’t have enough money,” Oliver returned.
“And it isn’t even just that,” Jackson added. “Alabama has one of the five lowest tax rates in the union.”
“We’re at a point where our roads are deteriorating so much that we can’t even do preventative maintenance anymore,” according to Oliver. “We only have enough money to repair our failing roads.”
County Administrator Harry Sanders believes that local roads in Pike County are in need of basic improvement, but the County Commission lacks the funds to adequately maintain all of the county’s roads.
“Repairing and maintaining roads is an important issue for the county, but we don’t really have the money to make every needed improvement for every road,” Sanders said. “This results in the roads with major traffic flow being repaired, and the roads further out in the county being passed over.”
“We would love to be able to maintain all the roads in the county, but in all the time that I have been here, the Road Department has not had a single revenue increase,” Sanders said.
As of last April, the Pike County Roads Department, in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Transportation, identified 57 local roads that were in need of resurfacing. The Commission’s primary source of funding for county roads outside the city limits comes from taxes on gasoline sold within the county.
According to tax records from 2005-06, Pike County took in $2,045,939 in revenue for the entire year. During the fiscal year of 2012-13, the county took in $1,928,698. The loss in revenue represents a six percent decrease in funding from 2005 to 2013. Over that same period of time, inflation within the United States has averaged just more than two percent per year.
Sanders shared his thoughts on why the revenue stream from the gasoline tax has fallen in recent years.
“When the price of gasoline goes up, people buy less,” Sanders said. “And now that cars are more fuel efficient, people don’t need to buy as much as they used to. So, even though the population in Pike County is rising, the revenues have flat-lined.”
Oliver leaned back in his chair and pointed to a graph sitting on the table. “From when I’ve talked to people, one of the most confusing things for them is how the gas taxes actually work,” Oliver shared. “People think the tax works like a sales tax—that it is a percentage of the total cost of the gasoline.
“It isn’t. The state gasoline taxes are 18 cents per gallon no matter what the cost of gasoline is.”
Joey Jackson’s phone rang during his recent meeting with Oliver and The Messenger, but he rejected the call. This issue is too important to him to be interrupted.
“The tax rate from the federal and state governments hasn’t changed in the last 20 years,” Jackson said. “The 18.4 cents collected by the federal government today has the purchasing power of 11 cents today. That results in 55 percent fewer projects being done in the county.”
“There’s another issue with the taxes,” Oliver went on. “The state government collects and distributes all the taxes that we receive. I won’t go into too much detail, but about half of the money taken up by the state is distributed equally to all 67 counties. The other half is distributed based on the county’s population.”
“So, we may sell more gasoline than a hypothetical county but receive less money than a county with a higher population that sold less gasoline than us,” Oliver said.
County votes ‘no’
In March 2012, Pike County residents voted against Referendum Act No. 2005-200. The referendum vote was a result of the state legislature passing the “Alabama Self-Governance Act in 2005. Had the referendum been approved, it would have allowed for the County Commission to pass ordinances without the ordinance being approved by the state legislature.
Sanders explained, as it now stands, the only way for the county to increase the revenue available for the Roads Department is to pass a new tax with the purpose of funding the department. Since Pike County lacks “home rule,” any new tax must be introduced to the state legislature and must be approved by a referendum held throughout the county.
The County Commission has introduced legislation to help with road maintenance funds in years past, but county residents have consistently voted against tax increases during referendums.
County roads are eligible for federal funding through Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, but the majority of the roads in rural Pike County do not qualify for these grants because they do not meet the standards for a collector road, which include the population living on the road and the average traffic flow on the road.
Oliver flipped through a binder containing his department’s budget.
“We receive $533,000 dollars a year from the federal government, but that money can only be used on our major collector roads,” Oliver said.
Jackson explained the point further.
“We have three roads in the county – major collectors, minor collectors, and local roads,” Jackson said. “Major collectors are going to be your major roadways in the county, like Henderson Highway or Shellhorn Road. We get federal aid to maintain those roads. For the other two types of roads, we are on our own.”
“Right now, the Pike County Commission cannot raise any revenue,” Oliver said. “Any road work we do has to be done with the existing funds.”
“We put the idea of a five cent gas tax out there last year, but people just weren’t for it,” Jackson added.
“My company ran the numbers, and we figured, for an average driver, the additional five cents would come out to about $50 a year,” Jackson said.
Effects on Road Department
County Engineer Russell Oliver’s department has felt the pinch from the county’s revenue stream stagnating.
“It has negatively impacted our abilities to do our jobs,” Oliver said. “We don’t have enough people to do what needs to be done. We don’t have enough materials or equipment.”
And the quality of equipment isn’t the only thing that has been dealt a blow from the lack of revenue.
“We have had to downsize over the past few years,” Oliver said. “All the downsizing has been strictly through attrition. Approximately 10 years ago, we had over 40 people working in the department. Five years ago, we had 37. Now, we have 27 full-time employees and two part-time employees.”
“With fewer employees, the Road Department has not been able to respond at the level that was possible 10 years ago and often has to put certain projects on the backburner. It takes us longer to respond to citizens’ complaints because we now have a backlog of maintenance items.”
The material costs for the department have increased dramatically while revenues have actually decreased in the past 10 years. As a result, the department lacks the funds to buy necessary materials to perform many projects.
But the lack of funding has not stopped Oliver’s department from trying it’s best to serve the citizens of Pike County.
“We try to still get the work done; we just can’t do it as quickly as is sometimes desired or expected,” Oliver said. “A good example is on our unpaved roads and dirt roads. For our citizens and motorists, it shows up in their expenses.”
A study done by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that poor road conditions cost drivers $67 billion annually, which figures to about $335 per motorist.
The biggest issue for rural roads in Pike County comes from projects that require the Road Department to contract private work.
“The real issue is on the contract work, things that we cannot do ourselves such as bridge replacement and resurfacing of paved roads,” Oliver said. “For those things, the funding is just not there.”
Oliver understands that many people living out on the county roads are very frustrated, but, without more funding, his department’s hands are tied.
“All of our roads that are not collectors do not qualify for federal aid,” Oliver said. “Those roads will continue to deteriorate. We’re trying to do the best with what we have.”
Both Russell Oliver and Joey Jackson seem to be consumed by the problem. Jackson admitted that roads were the reason that he even ran for commissioner. Funding is the main obstacle Oliver faces when doing his job. “At this point, the situation is so bad that all that we can afford to do is fix a few of the worst roads,” Oliver said. “We can’t afford to do preventative maintenance. Every dollar spent on preventative maintenance is worth $4 to $10 in repairs.”
“Once a road deteriorates to a certain point it becomes prohibitively expensive to repair,” Oliver explained. “We’re stuck in a cycle where our bad roads our so expensive to fix that we cannot do preventative maintenance which allows more roads to deteriorate.”
“Here’s what we should do,” Jackson suggested. “The Commission proposes a group of roads to work on in the next four years. We put it on the ballot and if people vote for it then we get a bond issue and find a temporary means to raise revenue to fund the issue. We let the people vote on the projects and the revenue measures.”
“There isn’t any way to make the process more open,” Oliver said. “Any money raised could only be used on the approved projects.”
“Receiving all this information is like drinking from a fire hose,” Jackson said. “I didn’t understand the issue until I became a commissioner.”
“I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to know more about the issue,” Oliver ended his thoughts. “I just want the public to be educated on the issue. That’s my main concern.”