The Association of Arkansas Counties, a lobby for county government, jumped into the highway money debate today with an alarm about an idea to help the state Highway and Transportation Department by transferring the maintenance of many rural highways to county governments.
It is pretty obvious that this isn’t a money saver. It’s just a burden shifter. But the highway construction lobby is endeavoring to find money to continue to patch the major highways that truckers destroy with a minimal demand for more tax money, not a popular subject at the Republican legislature.
There is no free lunch, as I’ve said repeatedly.
The Association of Arkansas Counties, which depends on payments from county governments for its budget, issued this lengthy statement today. It will not produce smiles on the faces of legislators who think cities and counties should take what they get from the legislature and shut up.
The counties — many of them rural with scant tax bases to produce road fund money — say they are already strapped doing basic work on existing county roads, many of which are important to farmers and school bus routes. Here’s what they have to say ( it includes a seeming endorsement from the powerful Farm Bureau to their point of view and a subtle gig at highway spending on the likes of expensive freeway interchanges in Little Rock):
Members of the Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding are finalizing their findings in lieu of a Dec. 15 deadline to report to Governor Asa Hutchinson’s office.
Ideas stemming from the group’s discussions have certainly been diverse.
In the mix of solutions that has been floated are a couple that cause counties grave concerns for their constituents.
Transferring thousands of state highway miles to counties and cities is one theory that has local governments shaking their heads.
“This would be a devastating unfunded mandate to Garland County,” said Rick Davis, Garland County Judge. “As it is now, we can only afford to maintain about half of our mileage that needs to be done every year. We have 700 square miles and more than 1,000 miles of roads in our county. We clear ditches and fix culverts and potholes every day.”
Rep. Mary “Prissy” Hickerson (R-Texarkana), a member of the working group, filed a bill last year that would transfer a road from the state highway system if it ends without connecting to another state highway or it has a traffic count of less than 2,000 vehicles per day and is used mainly for local traffic.
“This is a tremendous public policy issue. Obviously, counties are in no position to absorb additional roads. For the most part we run a road maintenance program around the state, not one of new construction, and we can barely handle the70,000 miles we currently have,” said Chris Villines, Association of Arkansas Counties executive director. “Basically, we are talking about a shift in priorities for this state, and our citizens need to be involved. Do we migrate funding to only those major highways that carry a great load of out-of-state travelers and commercial haulers, and in doing so forsake the roads that carry our children in school buses and crops to market?”
Counties in the state of Arkansas maintain more than 70,000 miles of roadways. The Good Roads Foundation’s proposal released last week included designating a study group to consider dropping roads from the state and adding them to local jurisdictions. It also included a shift in revenue to local governments for all new revenue flowing to a state-aid program instead of directly to local entities.
“I am extremely concerned about the recent remarks I have heard about proposals to turn certain state highways over to counties for perpetual maintenance. Polk County already has a 1,300-mile road system that cannot be adequately addressed,” said Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison. “It would be impossible for us to maintain an additional 65 miles to a highway standard not to mention the additional bridges that will surely come with it. We must find a better solution than another unfunded mandate on local government.”
Dallas County Judge Jimmy Jones said his county would also be “devastated” after a transfer of this magnitude to his county road maintenance program.
“I think the idea of off loading these roads on counties is ridiculous. It’s all we can do right now just to try to keep our county roads in working order,” Jones said. “We have a tremendous amount of logging traffic on Dallas County roads and that infrastructure is critical to the timber industry. If our county is mandated to take over those roads, we will simply not be able to provide maintenance.”
The majority of counties have a road maintenance program that involves unpaved rural roads, chip and seal roads and some asphalt roadways.
“I believe it is critical to list and map the miles of highway that would be affected,” Villines said. “The people of Arkansas have a right to know if the highway they use to get into town will be turned into a county road, and if so — what additional funding would be provided to maintain it?”
Villines also said the cost that would be shifted to the counties is not solely related to road beds, but also many costly bridges that will need to be replaced in short order.
“While it might appear that this shift of lane-miles to the counties would be cost-neutral, the reality is that much equipment and expertise would have to be purchased at a county level,” said State Representative Joe Jett, D, District 56,. “This could require additional revenue locally and increase the need for local tax hikes.”
Agriculture in the state of Arkansas is the largest industry and it depends on rural infrastructure and well-maintained rural roads.
“Arkansas Farm Bureau policy is solidly behind the maintenance and upkeep of quality farm-to-market infrastructure,” said Randy Veach, president, Arkansas Farm Bureau. “Any decision that would lead to decreased focus on rural roads would be detrimental to rural Arkansans and Arkansas agriculture. We can’t afford any negative impact to our state’s largest industry.”
Judge Ellison was quick to point out another misconception that seems to be in the conversation of state vs. county road funding.
“To say that counties are unaccountable for road spending is simply not true,” Ellison said. “We are all audited by Legislative Audit.”
Villines added that there is no more transparent level of government than county government. The state’s quorum courts and county judges do a “masterful job” of utilizing “slim” budgets to cover a lot of ground.
In addition to the Division of Legislative Audit reporting, which involves all 75 counties and includes an examination of road department spending for compliance, Act 927 of 2013 established a reporting mechanism for counties that expend more than $2 million annually on roads.
“All 14 counties complied and the report is a good barometer of how state, federal, severance tax and 1Ž2-cent moneys are received and spent by the counties,” Villines said. “We are happy to continue providing these numbers as they confirm the frugality and pragmatism our counties use in regards to road money.”
County officials and constituents across the state areengaging their respective representatives and senators concerning the funding crisis, especially the suggestions that counties can bare this burden.
“Some have stated that only the interstates and major highways need to be the priority, but 100 percent of the traffic on county roads is driven by Arkansans,” Villines said. “They tell our county judges that they do not care about fancy cloverleaf exchanges, instead they argue that having a road wide enough for two vehicles to pass is their priority at home.”