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Jennings Sunday: Road woes stall work - Lack of funds keeping county from repairs

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VERNON — North Vernon and Jennings County officials are struggling to keep up with road repairs as state funding has decreased, leaving them looking for ways to handle a problem they see getting worse before it gets better.

Fuel tax revenue dropped from a high of $2.6 million in 2006 to $1.98 million in 2011, according to the Indiana auditor’s office.

Jeff Barger, Jennings County’s District 1 county commissioner, said about 15 miles of roads that need immediate attention in the county will be resurfaced with chip seal this year. The method, a less-expensive fix than repaving roads with asphalt, involves adding a layer of finely chipped stone mixed with oil that is compacted on the road’s surface.

Although chip seal will solve some short-term problems, Barger would like more funds to pave roads to address safety issues.

“Some roads have deteriorated to gravel in some spots, and some have swampy spots,” he said. “But funding is going to become an even bigger issue as roads become worse and worse.”

Barger said part of the problem is that the state fuel tax drivers pay when they fill up at the pump is distributed to too many places, and cities and counties get only a portion of the tax to help them with road repairs.

When drivers purchase gasoline for their vehicles, 18 cents goes to the state’s fuel tax fund, with money distributed to cities and counties to pay for road and highway maintenance. Part of the fuel tax also helps fund the Indiana State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Barger said an added challenge for cities and counties is that motorists are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and purchasing less gasoline, meaning the amount of fuel tax being collected is decreasing.

North Vernon Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell said county and city officials have to search for creative solutions while the state finds a long-term fix to the problem. This might include moving State Police and Bureau of Motor Vehicle funding away from the gas tax.

“We’re just not generating the tax revenue we used to have,” Campbell said. “And I don’t see it getting any better in the foreseeable future.”

Jennings County did not receive any Major Moves funds for road repairs and does not have a wheel tax to help with road repairs. Much of State Street through North Vernon was repaved about seven years ago, using state funds because it is a state highway (State Road 7), and more work on the southern portion of State Street is scheduled for next year.

Other city roads in need of repair, such as North and South Elm streets and portions of Second, Fourth and Fifth streets, likely will have to wait for improvements, Campbell said. In all, North Vernon has about 55 miles of streets.

One option Campbell is considering is using tax-increment financing district funds for the area around the city’s industrial park since trucks going to and from the park cause wear and tear on the roads.

“We have roads with a lot of truck traffic that are being pounded apart that need work right now,” he said. “I know people don’t want new taxes, but we have to have some basic sources of revenue for work like this.”

Barger said elected officials are in a difficult situation. People are frustrated with the condition of roads but also don’t want a tax increase to help pay for road improvements.

Rick Marksberry, street superintendent in North Vernon’s city service center, has seen funding for road repairs fluctuate greatly in his 19 years working for the department. He manages by setting priorities and wish lists and waiting to see what funding arrives.

Shawn Over, a clerk in the county highway garage, said managing the decreasing revenue for road repairs has meant crews spend a lot of time applying chip seal to county roads over the summer rather than new asphalt.

He said the good news is that last year’s mild winter meant less damage to roads from extreme temperature fluctuations.

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