DEADWOOD — While Lawrence County has been awarded two Bridge Improvement Grants (BIG) this funding cycle, county officials are attempting to determine ways to make the county’s contributing dollar match amount lower on similar future projects and discussed the matter at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
“We spent over half a million dollars to obtain the grant because we did not have the max on the wheel tax,” said Highway Superintendent Allan Bonnema. “In order to get the 10 points, we decided to pay 50-50, the cost of these projects, which amounted to an extra $525,565. I brought it up and now the discussion is how to somehow get the maximum points.”
A wide variety of factors, developed by the state of South Dakota, comprise what is referred to as a BIG Score, which ranks project and funding priority with a point score.
In 2019, Lawrence County was awarded one BIG rehabilitation/replacement award, a $664,100 grant on the $1.3 million estimated Whitewood Valley over Whitewood Creek bridge; and a BIG preservation award, a $212,000 grant on $423,876 in design and construction on the bridge at junction U.S. Highway 85 on the Exit 10 service road over Spearfish Creek.
The BIG program was created by the 2015 legislative session in Senate Bill (SB) 1, which states that in order to be eligible for a BIG grant, a county must impose a wheel tax. In addition, a county must have a County Highway and Bridge Improvement Plan. The plan should detail proposed county highway and bridge improvement projects in the county for the next five years.
The Transportation Commission was tasked with creating Administrative Rules regarding the application process and timelines, the guidelines and criteria for approval of applications, and the distribution of funds from the local BIG fund.
SB 1 dedicated $7 million per year for the BIG funds. This money comes from the license plate fees and from non-commercial vehicle fees. In addition, the state Department of Transportation will set aside $8 million per year of state gas tax funds, for a total of $15 million available for the BIG grants.
Since the wheel tax was implemented 2016, around $300,000 has been collected each year in Lawrence County.
“So it offset that $500,000 that we have budgeted this year,” Commissioner Randy Deibert said.
The county got 10 extra points by agreeing to do a 50-50 match and receives no points to posture in the BIG grant grabbing process by doing an 80-20 match.
“Our discussion is getting the other six points possibly from the wheel tax and not fully going to the extent with the match funds,” Deibert said.
The county earns an extra one-third of a point for every percent.
“So, three to get one,” said Jason Hanson, principal engineer of Brosz Engineering.
The maximum the state can receive in BIG grant funds is $4 million in a three-year period.
Commissioner Daryl Johnson clarified what the current wheel tax is $2 per tire on all vehicles up to a maximum of 12 tires, or wheels.
“Every vehicle that comes in, we say, ‘How many tires do you have?’” said Treasurer Deb Tridle. “Especially on the trailers now, so we’ve captured every tire. So, it’s from, the motorcycles, is $4, up to $24.”
“What do you have to do to the wheel tax to get the points?” Johnson asked.
“Five. The max is five,” Tridle said.
“But you don’t have to do that on all vehicles,” Johnson said.
“Right. Only on a vehicle weighing 6,000 pounds or over,” Bonnema said.
“If we kept our maximum at $25, and we did a $5 per tire tax over 6,000, do we still qualify?” Deibert said.
“Yes,” Bonnema said.
“So we can regulate the total by the max, so, in theory, we have very little increase,” Deibert said.
Bonnema said there are currently three bridges the county is waiting to hear back on in regard to BIG rehab/reconstruction funding.
“We got the preliminary engineering grants on all three of them,” Bonnema said.
Johnson, clarified his line of thinking on the matter.
“If we up the wheel tax on the heavier vehicles, but limit the number of wheels that you can charge it on, you’re basically not costing anybody anymore money, but we up our value in the system,” Johnson said.
“We get more points,” said Commissioner Randall Rosenau.
Commissioners discussed increasing the wheel tax on heavy vehicles to $5 per wheel with a maximum of six wheels on anything over 6,000 pounds.
Tridle expressed concerns regarding the determination of exactly how many wheels would be on some heavier vehicles.
“We’re talking about six wheels, we’re talking about over 6,000 pounds, so motorcycles and most cars are not going to be over 6,000 pounds, and we’re talking about saving the county $400,000, roughly, per bridge, by not putting our other 30 percent in there,” Deibert said. “So, if we have to do a little more labor to save $400,000, and you need more staff, we can certainly look at that.”
“No, we won’t have to get more staff. It’s just going to take us more time to make sure we get the paperwork right when we do the vehicles,” Tridle said, pointing out that most of the newer, heavier pick-ups will cost more, with half-tons under, but three-quarter tons costing more.
Tridle also stated that if the commission wishes for the new tax to go into effect in January, a resolution needs to be to Pierre at least four months in advance.
Deibert asked that Johnson, Rosenau, Bonnema, and Tridle meet and come up with a recommendation to be heard at the next commission meeting.
“I agree, we need to look at those points, because it’s going to save the taxpayers a lot of money in the long run,” Deibert said.
Johnson pointed out that as many loopholes and problems there are with the BIG grant program, it does seem to be progressing.
“The other bridge grant program, I’ve been around here 11 years, and there are two bridges we’ve been on the replacement program for 11 years and those bridges still haven’t been replaced,” Johnson said. “So, at least now, we’re going to fix some bridges. So, it is a good program.”
Deputy State’s Attorney Bruce Outka pointed out that procedurally, the wheel tax ordinance was first passed Oct. 27, 2015, and a change would require a new ordinance, with a first and second reading. The wheel tax was implemented and money collected beginning March 1, 2016.
Deibert suggested a first reading of June 11, if the commission decides to act on the matter and make any changes to the current fee structure.
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