Road millage decision could come soonPublished 6:06pm Friday, November 11, 2011
ST. JOSPEH — Berrien County commissioners have varying views on a potential county-wide road millage, but most seem to agree the issue should be put before voters.
The board could vote on a resolution on whether to put the item on next November’s ballot as early as December.
The Committee for Better Roads in Berrien County has been working for several months on crafting language for the millage and promoting it to county municipalities. Officials with the committee urged commissioners at Thursday’s county board meeting to put the issue before the voters.
The six-year 0.5 mill levy would generate $3.4 million a year to fund road maintenance projects in the county.
The Berrien County Road Commission and the Committee for Better Roads have been vocal about the commission’s financial struggles.
The road commission had to cancel several road projects this year due to increased cost of materials and a decrease in funding from the state gas tax.
Many of the commissioners expressed that funding the roads is a state issue, calling for legislators to increase the gas tax, which has been at 19 cents per gallon since 1997.
State action needed
Mac Elliott, 11th District commissioner, said the state legislature needs to “do its job.”
“The legislature and governor have a moral imperative to deal with this,” he said. “It’s not just some holes. It’s a matter of public safety. Some of those bridges are dangerous. Shame on them if they don’t fix this.”
Kevin Gillette, the chairman of the Committee for Better Roads, said he agrees but said a solution needs to be introduced in the short-term.
“I don’t see anything happening any time soon (at the state level),” Gillette said. “This is not a permanent solution, but we need help now. The roads aren’t going to fix themselves.”
A 2010 survey rated 39 percent of the roads in the county as poor, very poor or failed. The study also revealed that it would cost $370 million to make all the necessary road repairs and maintenance in the county.
Of the 100 bridges maintained by the road comission, 10 need to be replaced, but with the budget crunch the work won’t begin until 2015 at the earliest.
Commissioner Jon Hinkelman said such a millage would be unfair to property owners, especially farmers.
“I get nervous,” he said. “I’ve got a problem using property as a means of funding roads. The users of those roads aren’t just property owners.”
Hinkelman also questioned the message the county would send to the state if it introduced the millage.
“What incentive would we be giving for the state to move forward toward true reform?” he questioned.
John LaMore, 12th District commissioner, disagreed, arguing the county taking action on the issue will only encourage the state to “get the gumption to do something.”
Commissioner Deb Panozzo said something has to be done with the roads and said the issue should be put before the voters.
“Roads are foundational. We want businesses to come; we want tourism. We want to be a place where people want to come and stay,” she said.
Gillette said 30 of the county’s 39 municipalities passed resolutions supporting putting the issue before the voters.
If the millage is approved by voters, 60 percent of the funds generated would stay in their respective townships, while 40 percent would be used as matching funds for roads that qualify for federal funding in the township’s district. The county has been outlined into four districts.
Cities and villages, which are responsible for their own roads, would keep 100 percent of the money generated from the millage in their area.
Gov. Rick Snyder has suggested a number of ways to increase funding for the state’s crumbling road system, including increasing vehicle registration fees, putting a wholesale tax on fuel and allowing local governments to raise money for road repairs with voter-approved vehicle registration fees.
Panozzo said local officials and residents need to encourage legislators to take action.
“I’m wondering if we need to do what other people are doing and ‘occupy’ Lansing,” she said.
Where would the money go?
If voters approve a county-wide road millage, here is a breakdown of how much money local municipalities will gain each year for road maintenance:
— Niles Township: $178,412
— Niles City: $104,780
— Bertrand Towsnhip: $65,120
— Buchanan Township: $62,177
— Buchanan City: $43,949