County considers enacting wheel tax

County considers enacting wheel tax
An annual rite of spring of the Clay County Commission is an inspection of the hundreds of miles of roads and bridges within the county's borders after the ground has thawed.

Each year, this part of the commissioners' job grows more challenging.

Properly maintaining county roads is becoming more difficult in an era with continually rising prices of materials, fuel and utilities.

At the same time, the county has been forced to spend down its reserve fund, and has limited options for generating additional money.

That has commissioners contemplating the implementation of a wheel tax in the county.

"We're kind of caught between a rock and a hard spot in terms of very expensive projects we need to deal with in the county," Commission Chairman Jerry Sommervold said. "Our lack of funding is starting to catch up with us considerably."

The commission has scheduled a public meeting to discuss whether it is time for a wheel tax in the county. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 27, in the basement of the Clay County Courthouse.

"The idea of this is not to force something on the taxpayers," Commissioner Leo Powell said. "The idea is to find out what their feelings are. I'm sure there are people who are not going to like this and we would like to have the opportunity to let them know what the benefits are."

According to the South Dakota Department of Motor Vehicles, 36 counties in the state are implementing a wheel tax, ranging from $2 to $4 per wheel. There is no such tax in Clay County.

Commissioners are considering a $4 per wheel tax, meaning there would be a $16 maximum increase for each vehicle in the county. All of the funds generated by the tax, Sommervold said, would go to the county and be dedicated to building roads and bridges. It is estimated that such a tax in Clay County would raise approximately $200,000 annually.

The only other increase in the county budget is related to the annual Consumer Price Index, Powell said. "We're not even keeping up with inflation," he said.

The county has put several road projects on hold because of lack of funding, but the time has come to complete some projects that have a hefty price tag. Those projects include Fairview Avenue, the west half of Timber Road, 452nd Avenue and 313 Street. Bids for the 302 Street project are scheduled to be let this spring. That project may cost approximately $3 million to complete. The county's total annual operating budget is approximately $4.3 million.

Commissioners also want to make sure that the county's farm-to-market roads are in good shape once the Glacial Lakes ethanol plant in completed.

The county has applied for grant funding to help pay for some road projects, but has been awarded only one grant to date.

"There are the things we have to do, and the things we should do," Powell said. "We should improve some of these roads so that they are better farm-to-market and so they don't have the load limits on them every spring."

The $4 per wheel tax is the maximum that counties can levy. Commissioner Ralph Westergaard would prefer that the county seek a $2 per wheel tax.

"Ralph wants to keep it as low as possible, and I guess my argument with that is a $2 wheel tax isn't going to generate money fast enough," Powell said. "And actually, $200,000 doesn't go very far when you take a look at the 302 Street Project. Just the grading and getting a gravel surface back on it is going to cost $1.9 million."

"Some of our costs have gone up so much, it's scary," Sommervold said. When he first joined the commission, the county would complete approximately six miles of asphalt overlay each year on the county's highway system, at a cost of nearly $60,000 per mile.

"Now that asphalt overlay is right in the vicinity of $200,000 per mile, so it's pretty hard for us to do six miles of road every year," he said. "There's no way that we can get $1 million per year to rebuild these roads. We don't have the money, and we don't have any way to generate funds for roads other than the wheel tax."

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