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Crow Wing County Board: Sales tax leads to 'robust' highway spending

It was a "very robust year" for the Crow Wing County Highway Department in terms of dollars spent on county roads, the county engineer said Tuesday. County Engineer Tim Bray offered an update on this year's road construction to the county board a...

It was a "very robust year" for the Crow Wing County Highway Department in terms of dollars spent on county roads, the county engineer said Tuesday.

County Engineer Tim Bray offered an update on this year's road construction to the county board at its meeting upon request from Commissioner Paul Koering. Koering noted roads in his district long in need of repair, such as County Highway 9, received facelifts this year. He asked Bray to discuss the year's progress in light of the local option sales tax passed by board in late 2015.

"As the sales tax dollars come in and we see how much dollars are available ... if by chance there is more dollars, are you moving projects up as you can?" Koering asked.

Bray said the five-year road improvement plan is evaluated each year to determine if any changes are prudent-whether that means moving projects sooner or later. As far as the sales tax is concerned, however, Bray said it would not necessarily translate to an increase in the number of construction projects in the plan performed by county employees in a given year.

"We have a lean, talented staff," Bray said. "We're about at maximum capacity in terms of being able to deliver $10-$12 million worth of construction."

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Bray said in a good year, when tourism to the area drives up consumer spending, the funds collected above that projected could be saved to use in years when sales are down.

"If we have a year where the weather doesn't cooperate, we want to be able to still deliver the program," Bray said. "We want to not spend according to how the economy is going."

In passing the sales tax, the board joined a growing number of greater Minnesota county boards following the passage of a 2013 state law allowing local governments to collect sales taxes to fund transportation needs without a voter referendum.

The projected annual tax revenue of $4.18 million is intended to chip away at a funding gap the county experiences each year in the highway department, reported Bray at the time of passage. That gap, Bray said, led to the annual maintenance deferment of nearly 160 miles of paved county roads, and 15 percent of those roads are in poor or very poor condition according to internal measures.

Bray said Tuesday the sales tax dollars would alleviate those deferments, making it possible to accomplish more than the previous funding would allow. A funding gap remains, however, following the county board's decision to cut the entire property tax levy-funded portion of the highway department's budget in 2017. According to Bray's projections earlier this year, the highway department will continue to face a shortfall of more than $1 million annually compared to the system's needs.

Koering said he's received positive feedback from county residents on the road construction.

"As I was the only one here that voted 'no,' I'm beginning to have second thoughts that I could have possibly been wrong on that, because I'm seeing a lot of roads getting done, I'm hearing a lot of good comments from people," he said.

Koering said he remains somewhat skeptical, however, and would like to see the number of construction projects completed in the county "speed up."

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"If there's a possibility to move it up, I would sure like to see that," he said.

Beyond the impacts of the sales tax, Bray said a noteworthy accomplishment of the highway department this year was nearly all-98 percent, Bray said-road construction by the county was completed by Sept. 1.

"That's never really happened before," Bray said.

Bray said it was good for constituents while also giving employees "a little needed break."

"Construction season is a sunup to sundown type work day," he said.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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