Revenue from gas tax blunted by cost of paving

By ED HOWELL
Posted 5/23/19

Walker County may get $1 million in three years from the new state gas tax increase - but the cost to pave still costs up to $100,000 a mile, which will limit the impact. Jerry Bishop, the …

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Revenue from gas tax blunted by cost of paving

Posted

Walker County may get $1 million in three years from the new state gas tax increase - but the cost to pave still costs up to $100,000 a mile, which will limit the impact. 

Jerry Bishop, the chairman of the Walker County Commission, assisted by County Engineer Mike Short, spoke to the Rotary Club of Jasper on Tuesday about a wide range of county issues.

"I have found we have some of the best employees in this county," Bishop said. "We just let them do their thing, we supervise and we help them. I can not do it without people like Michael Short, Robbie Dickerson, our administrator, and everyone who works down there. Even the commissioners respect me enough to do things they don't want to do, but they think it is the right way. So I try to lead them. I don't try to tell them what to do. You can't. They are elected to, but you can lead, so that is what I try to do." 

Bishop noted that many people have been surprised after going through a tough financial period the county has been able to find money to do some projects recently. 

"We've found stuff and saved money," he said, also crediting a good economy recently. "We took a landfill and we went from a negative quarter million dollars a year to a plus-300. It's just a trucking company hauling garbage. I do have a little experience in the trucking business, 41 years." He also noted he had been involved in companies that dealt with roads. ... We found a little money and we're going to pave some roads this year - not as much as what we would like to do, but we're going to get it done." 

Short and Bishop turned to road needs, telling the Rotary members that with the state's 10-cent increase for the state gas tax, that will give relief in restrictions for projects, so that its funds can go further. 

"They are going to drop major collectors and we may not have to meet federal aid standards on all of those roads, which may not sound a lot when you say it but it means a lot from a safety standpoint, from guard rails and turnouts and things like that," Short said. 

The increase is expected to start taking effect Oct. 1, 2020 and starts being phased in over a three-year period. "They said they will start collecting it Oct. 1 and said we could expect a check probably after the first of the year," he said. "They can't tell you exactly what will come in." However, the county is projecting it could get "in the neighborhood of $1 million at the end of three years, additional." 

Bishop said the state will get 66 percent of the funding from the revenue, while counties will get a quarter of the funding, and the rest will go to cities. 

Short said the county has 1,200 miles of paved roads to maintain, which he said is somewhat high from the standpoint of a county population. 

Asked about the limitations of how much can be done with the revenue compared to the needs, Bishop said, "This wasn't created over night, our problems in our county. It has happened over the years, and we can't correct all of it over night. We will have to start somewhere." 

Short said one can expect on the average to spend $80,000 to $100,000 per mile to pave, depending on the condition of the road. 

Bishop referred back to the county's failed efforts to pass a 1-cent sales tax in a referendum set up by the county's legislative delegation.

"That would have gotten us started on the way to recovery," he said. "What the state is going to give us is not going to do that. But we're going to take everything that we give us, don't get us wrong." 

Bishop said the commission did not vote for the state tax increase. "All we did was approve our association (the Association of County Commissioners of Alabama, which lobbied for the increase). We supported them in whatever they did on it. Did we vote for a tax? No. We can't. If we did, we would have already been out of this fix. The Walker County Commission cannot vote for a tax. The only tax we can vote for is for the board of education." 

Last fall the commission did vote to increase business license and lodging revenue in the Fiscal 2019 budget, as the General Fund was outspending its revenue. It was expected the two might bring in as much as $850,000 combined a year. 

Bishop also said in response to a question that the commission could raise license plate fees, but he said the commission had not done that. 

"Our legislator groups in the past have felt like that undoubtedly our commissioners were not capable of making those decisions. And it's hard for me, I guess - I look around at the ones we got now and they can," he said. 

Bishop said the commission now has some funds to help match for grants. They are starting with the Sheriff's Office, as the funds can be more immediately available for him, while road needs "are the hardest thing in the world to get a grant for," he said.

There are hopes that any federal infrastructure bill might bring the county some funds, but it is uncertain how much that would be. (Media reports indicate the White House and the parties in Congress have not come together on a deal for that proposal.) 

He said some funds were also found for economic development, including local chambers of commerce. With the passage of a lodging tax increase on Oct. 1 for the new fiscal year budget, the commission agreed to give $25,000 of the new lodging revenue to the Walker County Development Authority, the county's industrial board, as well as $20,000 to the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County and $5,000 to the East Walker Chamber of Commerce.

Short noted there is a push to change Walker County Airport-Bevill Field to a 7,000-foot runway. "I don't know if that will ever happen to do it at our present location. You would have to rotate the runway about 5 degrees from the center, and that is basically like building a new airport where we are," he said. "I don't know if the (Federal Aviation Administration) would ever agree to that," as well as pay for 90 percent of it with federal funds under current grant funding provisions. 

Bishop said while the closing of the Gorgas Steam Plant won't hurt this year or next, it will eventually have an effect on county government's revenue, which will cause readjustments.