BELLE FOURCHE –– Nearly two dozen Butte County residents poured into the Butte County Courthouse courtroom Monday evening to hear information about and voice their opinions of the county’s recent hike in its wheel tax and mill levy to fund bridge and road repairs. 

According to a recent bridge report,

the county has $12 million worth of road and bridge work needed within the next five years.

“We must try to extend the life of our present bridges as long as we can,” Commission Chairman Kim Richards said. 

The county has identified two pages worth of repairs that need to be done to existing county bridges in need of upkeep.

Richards explained that the majority of the county budget is mandated expense.

“In the last several years, we’ve seen large areas (of expense) that have increased, but we still have no choice but to fund,” he said. “The other issue that we’re dealing with is that  55% of our total budget is basically people (staff) cost.”

Butte County has recently started coordinating and training with the South Dakota Local Transportation Assistance Program (LTAP). LTAP translates the latest highway and bridge technology into understandable terms for local government entities throughout the state. 

According to a graph prepared by Richards and Greg Vavra, LTAP program manager, for every dollar of county property tax paid by Butte County residents, 55% goes to the school districts, 28% funds the county operations, 16% goes to the cities, and only 2%, or 2 cents on the dollar, goes to fund the county highway department.

“As all the other departments have seen large increases (in expenses), the highway department, because it’s basically the only one that we have any control over, it continues to get squeezed,” Richards said.

The revenue sources that fund the department include $76,000 worth of property taxes, $920,000 worth of motor vehicle taxes, $158,850 worth of wheel taxes, $278,610 from secondary road funding, and $286,000 from federal Surface Transportation Program funds, totaling $1.71 million.

“When I’m out visiting with people and discussing their roads, it’s just a common thing, they (county residents) say, ‘We pay our property taxes, we should have better roads,’” Richards said. 

For the 2020 budget preparation process, which is just underway, the county has noticed some glaring increases coming down the pike that it has no choice but to fund. 

Jail costs is one of them. Butte County contracts with the Meade County Jail to house its inmates. This year the cost per day for an inmate is increasing from $65 to $80, representing a $88,500 increase over the year, assuming the county will have a similar inmate population next year. 

Cost of living raises and increased costs of insurance for the county employees are other expenses on the rise. Additionally, the county motor graders that are used to maintain the roads are aging and in need of replacement, pushing the county to add to its debt service amount. 

Richards compared information to see how the county stacks up against neighboring county highway departments. According to information shared by Richards related to each county’s 2019 statistics and budgets, the following is an accurate comparison.

Butte County - $1.54 million budget, 728 miles of road to maintain, 11 employees, representing a $230.07 per resident cost.

Perkins County - $1.53 million budget, 854 miles of road to maintain, 11 employees, representing a $522.46 per resident cost.

Harding County - $3.01 million budget, 684 miles of road to maintain, seven employees, representing a $2,693.34 per resident cost.

Meade County - $7.1 million budget, 1,287 miles of road to maintain, 22 employees, representing a $215.42 per resident cost.

Lawrence County - $9.5 million budget, 320 miles of road to maintain, 22 employees, representing a $260.71 per resident cost.

Jason Hanson, with Brosz Engineering, the county’s contracted engineering firm, prepared a current expense vs. revenue budget for the rest of 2019 through 2021. The estimate predicts that the count would end the year with a $41,340 surplus.

“But that was figured before we just lost probably $100,000 worth of culverts up north of Newell (in a recent storm), and we know that we’re probably gong to have to put a temporary crossing because we believe that the bridge on Orman Road will probably be deteriorated enough where we’re going to have to close it and we need to find an alternate route (for travelers),” Richards said. 

Next year, Hanson estimates the county will be left with a $633,140 deficit, and by the end of 2021, another $290,935 deficit.  

“So we came to the determination that we can’t go on, and we have to do something,” Richards said.

Wheel tax increase

Butte County originally implemented a wheel tax in 1988. Then, in 2017, the county augmented the wheel tax, bumping the charge from $2 per wheel for up to four wheels to $5 per wheel for up to two wheels.

State law allows for up to $5 per wheel with a 12-wheel maximum. The tax would be applied at the time of vehicle registration renewals. 

In 2018, the county collected $176,494.47 worth of wheel tax revenue that assisted in funding the county’s highway department. 

It still wasn’t enough help to the highway department, compelling the county to consider another increase.

At its July 15 meeting, the commission unanimously voted to increase the wheel tax:  

For vehicles under 6,000 pounds, residents would pay $3 per wheel for up to four wheels, and $5 per wheel for those over 6,000 pounds for up to 12 wheels. This would contribute to the county $395,428 per year, representing a $210,388 increase over 2018.

Vavra spoke during Monday’s public meeting, saying that the damage a loaded semi truck causes to the roadway equals that of 9,000 passenger vehicles.

“So there’s something to be said there for charging trucks a little more than a four-wheeler vehicle,” he said. 

Property tax increase

The mill levy is the assessed property tax rate used by local governments and other jurisdictions to raise revenue in order to cover annual expenses. The mill levy is calculated by determining how much revenue each taxing jurisdiction will need for the upcoming year, then dividing that projection by the total value of the property within the area, and finally adding up the rate from each jurisdiction to get the mill levy for the entire area.

Currently, the mill levy is $3.961 tax per $1,000 of a property valuation.

On July 15, the commission unanimously voted to approve an increase of 35 cents per $1,000 valuation, bringing the total mill levy to $4.311 per $1,000 valuation. 

So, a home in Belle Fourche valued at $100,000 would pay $35 more on their property taxes next year.

Beginning in January, a county resident owning property worth $100,000 will pay $431.10 toward the mill levy tax. With the increased tax, the county would yield an estimated $273,113 more to utilize for road and bridge repairs.

Funds raised by both the wheel tax and the mill levy increase are mandated by law to go only toward highway funding. 

Public input

Of the 20-some members of the public who attended Monday’s meeting, only half a dozen spoke, and the majority of the comments were in support of the tax hikes.

“What you’re dong here today is great, and it needs to be done because it (the condition of county roads) has been on a very minimum for many, many years,” Gary Helmer said. “I don’t love to pay taxes, but I love to drive roads, so I’ll pay. What you’re proposing here is excellent.”

Tom Davis, who lives outside of Belle Fourche, said he’s a rancher and that he’s tired of more taxation. He said he doesn’t care about the county’s bridges, adding that people within Belle Fourche should pay for the bridges because they’re the ones that benefit from them by receiving the goods that he and other ag producers provide.

Commissioner Karrol Herman said that members of the public need to keep in mind that she and her fellow commissioners also pay their taxes. 

“My husband and I own a farm, and our taxes are going to go up – we’re gong to pay more … but if it gets us better roads, we’ll pay it,” she said.

“I don’t care of I pay more taxes; I just want something done with it,” Jerry Olson said.

The county held a second public meeting Tuesday night in Newell, and the commission is expected to hold a second reading of the wheel tax ordinance at its Aug. 6 meeting.

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