Rock County towns struggle to pay for maintenance of roads

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, April 8, 2013

They have gravel roads in the town of Avon, crack-filling problems in the town of Plymouth, and money trouble everywhere.

The escalating cost of road repair and state-imposed levy limits are pinching Rock County towns in a financial vise, town officials said.

In one case, the town of Avon has resorted to using gravel.

Town of Plymouth Chairman Larry Harding said the problem is plain when you look at the numbers.

“In the past 20 years, state aid to towns for roads has gone up 70 percent,” Harding said. “During the same time, the cost of paving a mile of road—ripping out the old road and putting in four inches of blacktop—has increased 200 percent.”

Not that anybody could afford the cost of paving a road. At $92,000 a mile, redoing one mile of road would eat up almost a town’s entire road maintenance budget.

Instead, most towns resort to chip sealing. That process involves spraying a thin layer of hot asphalt and then spreading crushed rock on top of it.

But that’s not cheap, either.

“In 1993, it cost $4,000 to chip seal a mile of road. In 2012, it cost $17,000 a mile. That’s a 300 percent increase,” Harding said.

Rubble roads

The town of Avon faces special challenges.

With a population of 610, it has a relatively small tax base to support the town’s 44 miles of roads.

In addition, the state Department of Natural Resources manages nearly 4,000 acres of public land. For that, the town receives about $8,000 in lieu of taxes after all the other taxing jurisdictions take their money out.

Now consider the costs. The town:

-- Pays Rock County $118,000 for an annual contract, or about $2,685 per mile.

-- Receives $2,013 per mile in state aid.

-- Has a total roads budget of $187,000.

Town Chairman Michael Moore said the town does everything it can to maintain its roads. One common technique is to add sand and gravel to the top of an existing road service and then “rubblize” the blacktop. The broken-up blacktop ends up compacting into a kind of base for the sand and gravel.

Gravel is added to level the surface. Then, after about two years, the road is seal coated.

Local residents aren’t keen on the technique.

“I had a guy tell me that he couldn’t drive to work without his car getting chipped by gravel,” Moore said.

Some roads, such as those inside DNR land, were rubblized and will remain as gravel roads.

“If things keep going the way they are, we’re going back to gravel on some of our roads and that’s it and leave them that way,” Moore said.

Town options

Town officials said any of their options for road maintenance have drawbacks.

They can set up a garage and hire employees to do the plowing, mowing, tree trimming, patch sealing and pothole filling.

They can contract the work out to private companies.

Or they can contract with the county.

Each of the options has disadvantages, including the quality of work, the difficulty of managing employee costs, the price of equipment, safety and, of course, the price of paying for services.

Thirteen of Rock County’s 20 towns have contracts with the county for road plowing and summer maintenance, said Ben Coopman, county highway commissioner.

Rock County is one of the few counties that provides those services for towns. Throughout the rest of the state, towns maintain their own departments or contract with private businesses to maintain town roads.

For its services, the county charges about $885 per mile for plowing—whether the county plows once or a dozen times. The summer contract costs about $1,700 per mile.

The towns are not allowed to pick only one season, and so the annual cost comes to about $2,800 per mile.

In addition, the county charges 4.8 percent for record keeping.

“The whole premise behind the annual agreement is that we have fixed investments,” Coopman said.

That investment comes in the form of county staff and equipment.

The annual contracts give towns some flexibility to decide what maintenance they want done during the summer.

Coopman acknowledges that road upkeep is expensive for towns, especially when state transportation aide comes to only about $2,117 per mile.

In addition, state levy limits don’t allow towns to raise significantly more money through taxes.

But setting up their own departments might be even more expensive than contracting with the county.

The town of Plymouth has been considering such a change, and Coopman estimated that it could cost them more than $700,000 for a basic building and used equipment.

The town of Turtle and town of Beloit have long had their own staff and garages, he said, but benefit from having larger tax bases that include spillover from the city of Beloit.

Asking for their share

For Harding, the numbers tell the whole story.

The state has 101,000 miles of road, and 62,000 miles—61.4 percent—are in towns, but towns receive only 33 percent of state transportation aid.

“It boils down to the fact that every resident in the town of Plymouth pays money into the transportation fund when they buy gas or registers a vehicle,” Harding said. “Why are we giving money to the state and then having to beg them to give it back?”

Last updated: 10:28 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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