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May 12, 2013

Elkhart County Council paves way for road improvements

GOSHEN — Elkhart County Council members Saturday voted to approve $2.2 million in additional appropriations for the County Highway Department’s annual road paving and maintenance program, a number $500,000 short of what the department had initially requested.

According to Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder, the county’s roads are currently divided into three levels of need designated by three colors — yellow, green, and red — with red being the roads in most need of immediate repair.

“The paving program represents the red roads, and we have about 46.46 miles of those,” Yoder said. “Last year’s cost was about $100,000 per mile, so that’s $4.6 million that we need to do the really bad roads the way we’ve done them in the past. Then the spot paving and sealing, that’s 91 miles of road, that’s about $25,000 per mile as we’ve done it in the past, and that’s $2.3 million, for a total of about $7 million in needs for this year.”

Yoder acknowledged that the county is looking at some significant budgetary constraints due to things like the down economy of the past few years and reduced income due to the state-mandated property tax caps. In light of that fact, Yoder said the commissioners are looking for $2.7 million in appropriations for this year — a figure he believes the county can swing with a little rearranging of other areas of the budget.

Not so easy

The first appropriation, $1.2 million from the county’s Wheel Tax fund, went through with little discussion. The second appropriation request, $1.5 million from the county’s economic development income tax fund, or EDIT, was more controversial.

According to County Auditor Pauline Graff, the county’s current obligations for the year would leave about $600,000 left in the EDIT fund for use in funding the county paving program. In order to come up with the additional $900,000 being requested from the EDIT fund, County Administrator Tom Byers provided the council with several potential funding options.

The first option involved using the money recently approved by the state in its 2013 budget for highway maintenance, repair and projects. Byers said he believes the county will receive $1.3 to $1.4 million from the state, which will be divided into monthly payments of about $120,000 beginning in August. Considering most of the county’s paving will be done between August and November, Byers said the county could anticipate receiving about $480,000 to go toward the paving program from these funs.

Another option for additional funds was the sale of properties purchased by the County Highway Department as part of the C.R. 17 extension project. According to Byers, the department has three properties it plans to sell this year that could net a rough estimate of $300,000.

“It is not money in the bank,” Byers explained, “so you have to at least exercise some caution in whether or not you want to commit that kind of money without the properties being sold.”

Major Moves

The last — and most negatively received — option presented by Byers was a suggestion that the county delay its Major Moves payment of $554,159 for a year and use that money instead to help fund the paving program. Councilman Dave Hess was particularly opposed to this option.

“If we start down that slippery slope,” Hess said, “we might as well kiss the Major Moves fund goodbye.”

Due to the uncertainty in the amount of funding that will be received through the various options provided by Byers, the council agreed to reduce the amount requested from the EDIT fund from $1.5 million to $1 million and then continue to watch their finances over the next few months to see if enough additional funding comes in to support another appropriation later in the year.

Despite not receiving the full amount requested for the paving program, Yoder said he could accept the council’s decision to be cautious. However, he did encourage the council to do all it can to get a handle on the dire state of the county’s roads moving forward.

“I think it’s fair to ask what are we going to do with the shortfall in the paving program, and I can say that today we’re not exactly sure,” Yoder said. “So we have a challenge. We still need to take these 46 miles down somehow... at least cut it in half. So that’s the challenge before us.”

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