Funds cut in half for roads

Far fewer roads in Bartholomew County will get new blacktop this year.

During the 2014 overlay project, the county spent more than $1.27 million to put a new coat of asphalt on 25 miles of road.

But new financial drains on the county’s economic development income tax (EDIT) revenues have left fewer dollars available for road repair, said Larry Kleinhenz, chairman of the Bartholomew County commissioners. The biggest are:

$750,000 for hard-construction costs to build a new county annex building.

$100,000 for maintenance on county-owned buildings, requested by the Bartholomew County Council.

“That’s $850,000 that we would have spent on road maintenance that we will not,” Kleinhenz said.

It leaves $479,000 to be spent on road repair this year.

At a cost of $63,800 a mile, the new financial demands will mean 13 fewer miles of roads on this year’s overlay program, a 52 percent reduction from 2014, said Danny Hollander, Bartholomew County highway engineer.

He said temperature swings in December and January resulted in deteriorating road conditions this spring.

“These cycles of freeze and thaw kill the roads,” Hollander said. “When it gets cold and stays cold, it doesn’t hurt them as bad. But right now, we’ve got some pretty bad roads out there.”

Which roads will get new blacktop this year will largely be determined by Dwight Smith, Bartholomew County highway superintendent.

After beginning his annual spring inspection of more than 700 miles of county roads the week of March 22, Smith is expected to submit his overlay list for county approval as early as April 13, Hollander said.

Although fewer roads will get a new layer of asphalt, Smith is expected to expand his list of roads that will receive the less expensive chip-and-seal method, which blends asphalt with gravel.

While the expense varies with road width, last year’s prices showed it costs taxpayers about $16,600 to chip and seal one mile of road, compared with almost $64,000 per mile for new blacktop.

“We’ll work with what we have,” Hollander said.

However, county officials have frequently admitted that chip-and-seal treatments are unpopular with the public.

They provide no structural strength, do not repair all cracks, deteriorate faster, become more slippery in the rain and make more noise when driven upon, according to the National Transportation Research Board.

When Bartholomew County adopted EDIT in 2009, instead of a wheel tax, to address dwindling revenue for road work from Indiana’s traditional gasoline tax, Hollander said, he knew the decision would eventually cut down on road repair funds.

Wheel taxes, officially known as the Local Option Highway User Tax, usually amount to $20 to $25 annually per car. The tax is charged to motorists based on the number of wheels their vehicles have and are collected when vehicle registrations are renewed.

Although county officials are allowed to fund a variety of projects with EDIT funds, wheel tax revenue is specifically earmarked for road work, Hollander said.

“The council decided on EDIT because they wanted more flexibility,” Hollander said. “But I wanted the wheel tax because I don’t want them to have that flexibility.”

All Bartholomew County Council members and commissioners opposed a wheel tax when it was last proposed in 2012.

But at the end of last year, more than half of Indiana’s 92 counties had adopted it.

While he would prefer a wheel tax, Hollander insists he’s neither criticizing or complaining.

“Just a short time ago, we didn’t even have EDIT and had no money for overlay,” Hollander said. “So a half-a-million dollars is better than what we would have gotten before we even passed EDIT.”

This isn’t the first time different spending priorities have had a negative impact on the annual countywide overlay.

The 2013 program was significantly reduced in order to complete the long-awaited final stage of improvements to County Road 600N near Armuth Acres, Hollander said.

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Here are the 2015 allocations of economic development income tax (EDIT) funds for Bartholomew County.

  • Public safety: $569,000
  • General repair and replacement of county roads (overlay or chip and seal): $479,000
  • Annex building: $750,000
  • Maintenance and improvement of county buildings: $100,000.
  • Two seats on the Columbus Economic Development Board: $15,000

The amount spent on road work will be adjusted based on the amount of available EDIT funds. All amounts represent the maximum amount of EDIT funds that can be spent this year.