This week may mark a turning point in Marion County?s road and bridge program.
The Marion County Commission was expected to meet all morning Monday to discuss road and bridge options with department personnel (See story on page X).
Commission Chairman Dan Holub said this would be likely followed at the Friday payday meeting with major announcements for expansion of road and bridge efforts.
All of the commissioners were surprised by the turnout of more than 400 people for a roads discussion last Monday night at the county lake building and at the depth of concern for road problems, Holub said, adding he expected half that number to come.
Holub said the meeting tended to be dominated by speakers who wanted problems addressed in their specific locales, while the commissioners must come up with a broader program that will help everyone.
Rural residents may have to foot much of the bill for such a rural roads program, Holub said, because it is unfair to add taxes for urban residents who must pay already for the upkeep of their streets.
?The turnout itself was just a sampling of the county residents, but the people that attended did indicate their support for a tax increase, if needed, to ensure that road conditions improved, but they did not say which type of tax they would support,? Commissioner Lori Lalouette said.
The majority of the people there were rural residents, she said.
Lalouette said she has had many contacts with the public since the meeting, and most city residents feel it wouldn?t be fair for them to pay for rural road improvements when they don?t normally travel rural roads.
These people, Lalouette said, generally feel agriculture valuation is shrinking in comparison to residential and commercial valuations, although rural roads bring rural residents into cities for business.
The city residents don?t want a sales tax increase to pay for roads because farmers have a sales tax exemption on many of the inputs they use, she said.
One rural resident told Lalouette that farmers wouldn?t support any land tax increases because they foresee another farm recession coming.
Lalouette said a new Kansas Legislature bill could change property tax calculation on agricultural land greatly, leading to greater road funding.
The county road and bridge department has had a myriad of problems dealing with heavy rainfalls this year that have washed out formerly reliable road bases on which to lay new gravel.
The rains have turned both gravel and dirt roads into mud quagmires that apparently have exposed major drainage problems with lowered road crowns, filled-in ditches with poor drainage, and roads that have narrowed with decades of use.
Holub said the county is relying on the district court system to impose harsher penalties on ?recreational mudders,? usually driving four-wheel-drive vehicles, who tear up muddy roads for recreational purposes that are vital for farm use when the weather dries.
Gating roads off for only landowners on a road, having a key to unlock road gates, is an option done only at the request of landowners, and after inspection of the situation by commissioners, Holub said. He noted that often they are surprised by how many people are using roads that are remote from most traffic patterns.
Sheriff Rob Craft said his first concern during last week?s events was that the Monday night meeting remain ?civil and productive.?
Beyond that, Craft said, ?Mudders are a huge burden to the taxpayers and safety of all. They cause unnecessary manpower, time and money to be spent fixing what they have destroyed or damaged.
?They create a safety issue with ruts and holes that can cause damage and accidents.
?That being said, someone cannot be charged criminally for solely driving one trip down a mud road. They can be charged if they go from side to side or are intentionally plowing or swerving or making multiple passages on the road.
?If law enforcement can identify the driver of a vehicle doing this, we do and have charged them with criminal damage to property and referred them to the county attorney for prosecution.
?On those cases, restitution to the county for repair of the road is one of the options the court can impose,? Craft said.
Craft said all of this has to be balanced with the fact that all roads are public roads open to public use. There may be the need for a county ordinance that would prevent everyone from using them when they are wet or muddy, he said.
Such a legal ordinance might include landowners, mail carriers, hunters and all others unless some ?defined? users could be exempted, Craft said.
As far as charges that cross-country semitrailers are also using county roads to evade state scales, Craft said there is little evidence this is happening, and county law enforcement manpower is too limited in size to address such a question.
Holub said the public also needs to realize that Road and Bridge Director Randy Crawford has been doing an ?outstanding? job in attempting to keep up with all demands. If anything has gone wrong with use of road personnel, Holub said, it?s because commissioners insisted on diverting road graders from their normal areas to work on projects, thus putting graders behind on their assigned roads.
Holub said he doesn?t see it as an option at all for the county to ask more of townships in grading or maintaining roads. A request to the townships for input on any such ideas drew no response, he said.
Lalouette said many city residents favor the townships taking more burden for rural roads to equalize the expense.
Holub noted that the county recognized it had such problems 30 years ago when roads and bridges had 120 workers compared with half that at 60 today, with most of the county?s 1,600 miles of roads still a concern.
Marion County has 132 miles of paved roads, 745 miles of gravel roads and 650 miles of dirt roads, plus or minus a little bit, Holub said, which further illustrate the problems of an undermanned department.
In the south end of the county toward Burns, Holub said, problems are compounded because of a lack of access to hard-surfaced roads except for U.S. Highway 77.
Other roads are concerns, he said, whether hard surfaced currently or in need of it such as Yarrow, Diamond and Zebulon.
For gravel supplies, Holub said, the county has favored the quarry at Florence.
But to increase quantity and quality, he said, it may turn to adding rock from the quarry at Ottawa at perhaps $4 to $5 higher a ton through truckers doing backhauls from there, thus eliminating high hauling expense.
Holub said turning more gravel roads into hard surface roads to take advantage of longer-lasting blacktop materials is largely ?a pipe dream,? considering initial expense and the county?s current situation.
Randy Crawford, road and bridges superintendent, said the way it has been, the money just hasn?t been there for his department to do more than it has done.
With the recent rains, he said, his personnel have been stretched thin trying to keep up with some planned projects waiting while they respond to emergencies.
Ever heavier farm machinery and trucks have contributed to the problem, he said.
?The situation?s just a combination of everything.?
Offers of help to buy rock or grade with privately owned machines from tax payers such as feedlot operators or during high harvest usage are appreciated but not sought by the county, Holub said.
But a time could come when commission consideration of road usage indicates such help should be sought, he added.
Lalouette said, ?We also need to focus on the basics as a starting point. These basics are to ensure compliance with our existing road maintenance procedures (based on state standards).
?We also need to invest in our employees by providing training as needed to provide the skills they need to perform basic road maintenance.
?Reshaping the roads with the proper 4 percent crown to ensure drainage, eliminating any high secondary shoulders, and reshaping ditches for proper drainage must occur before long-term upgrades are made. Improving upon our grading techniques and correcting road defects and drainage issues will go a long way to make improvements in our roads,? Lalouette said.
Lalouette said she favors more long-term planning to evaluate roads, analyze costs for surface materials, and plan for the possibility of tax increases.