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  • Last modified 4 days ago (Dec. 7, 2017)

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Pay for your own roads?

Farmers and ranchers reaching for their wallets this Christmas season may want to hold a little in reserve in case they start paying out of pocket for gravel that goes on the roads they use.

That’s the underlying premise in an exchange that took place Monday when Mike Beneke of Lincolnville asked county commissioners about being reimbursed for gravel he’s put down on roads used by trucks for his cattle business.

Commissioner Dianne Novak reportedly retorted that his business was the reason the roads needed gravel, and that he should pay for it. It isn’t the county’s responsibility, she said, to subsidize his business.

Coming from someone who sets county policies, the suggestion that a cattleman should pay for the wear and tear on gravel roads they use is troubling.

Coming from Novak, who’s been such a fiscal hawk that she once suggested using a piece of sheet rock instead of paneling on a wall at the county lake superintendent’s home (that’s called micromanaging, by the way), the suggestion can’t just be swept under the rug.

Given that the county has twice reimbursed someone in recent years for putting down gravel on roads he used, Beneke’s question wasn’t out of line. A simple, polite “No” would have been a sufficient response to a district constituent.

But did we get some insight into Novak’s thinking that may just drive road policy in the future?

There’s little doubt that Novak studies issues thoroughly, perhaps in greater detail than any commissioner in recent memory — we’ve seen some of her work.

There’s also zero doubt that she campaigned in part on cutting out government waste, and when she sees something she believes is wasteful, she calls it out. Recall, if you will, a rather contentious exchange with EMS director Ed Debesis when Novak wanted to slash a huge chunk of his proposed overtime budget for personnel.

So we can’t simply dismiss a comment that a cattleman should pay for additional rock for gravel roads used by his business.

All our farmers and ranchers use these roads for their businesses, and few would argue that today’s larger equipment and semitrailer haulers don’t put additional stress on these roads.

Given our seemingly endless appetite for gravel and our finite financial resources, should those who use those roads for their agricultural businesses pay additional money for their upkeep? Would the county develop a gravel distribution plan targeting specific amounts for various roads for standard maintenance, and then create a surcharge for adjacent landowners when more rock is needed before it’s due?

What commissioners should do is come out with a clear formal policy about landowners and road maintenance. They’ve knocked it around, they’ve addressed specific situations, and they’ve talked about having a policy, but we haven’t seen one. Road and bridge superintendent Jesse Hamm said he wasn’t aware of one, though he was quick to say he couldn’t speak for commissioners.

I don’t believe gravel roads should be any different from paved roads non-ag businesses use every day. No one that we know of has ever suggested to one of our local grocers that they should pay extra for asphalt because the trucks that haul in their groceries put undue strain on paved roads.

Novak has it backward. The county doesn’t subsidize farmers and ranchers; they subsidize county government.

Our agriculture sector contributes millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to the local economy, and feeds government through taxes. In turn, that money goes on to create more jobs and generate more taxes.

Metro-area legislators tried and failed to revamp agriculture taxation last year, arguing that farmers and ranchers don’t pay enough based on land value. And it’s quite possibly true, as many have argued, that taxes generated by ag property wouldn’t cover the cost of major maintenance on an adjacent road.

But let’s be clear — rural roads have always existed to support business, to help farmers and ranchers get their products to market in the best manner possible, and it’s been the county’s job to establish and maintain those roads.

Farmers and ranchers are in the best position to spot developing needs on county-maintained roads, and many, including Beneke, have taken care of those needs themselves.

However, none of them should do so without getting prior approval, and none of them should expect to be reimbursed without it. A cost-sharing system could be developed, a plan should be designed and reviewed, and road and bridge department should inspect the work to be certain it was done properly.

If landowners want to invest their own money in the roads they use, fine by me. If they want to do it all on their own nickel, finer still. But the county needs to be involved in the process, and have a uniform policy that is fairly applied to all.

Regular maintenance of county roads used by our agribusiness owner/operators should be paid for out of county coffers, and commissioners must accept the fact that some of those businesses may generate a bit more road upkeep than others. As with road signs, the county should have a policy (and make it a practice) to facilitate collaboration with those folks who decide they’d like to help out.

And any time a commissioner, whose salary is entirely subsidized by the public, says to someone that it’s not the commission’s responsibility to take care of public roads maintained with public funds because it’s their fault they have a private business that should pay instead, folks should keep their eyes and ears open for what comes next.

— david colburn

Last modified Dec. 7, 2017

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