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Roads to Harry and David

Let’s start by immediately squelching any speculation that we’re about to announce in this column the impending arrival in Marion County of a local outlet for gourmet foods retailer Harry and David.

Instead, Harry would be Harry Bennett, former Marion County resident, longtime subscriber, and occasional contributor to the paper via letters to the editor. David would, of course, be me.

Harry says what’s on his mind, paying scant attention to our 250-word letter limit, and his latest tome on the county’s road woes nearly tripled that.

How can Marion County afford the ever-increasing costs of maintaining and improving its aging roads and bridges? Harry has some ideas, and I’ve added my own in an effort to spark some debate (and perhaps more letters) about the issue.

So, without further ado, take it away, Harry.

HARRY: Property taxes on agricultural production land should be determined by true market value of the land, rather than the current system of taxing about one-third of the land’s production value. The tax rate should be the same as that for a rural residence. Possible results could be lowering of the overall property tax rates and lowering the cost of land to make it more affordable to young farmers. Higher ag taxes would transfer to the market, resulting in higher agricultural commodities prices.

DAVID: According to a 2014 Kansas State University survey of land prices, a farmer in Stanton County paid $1,000 per acre for nonirrigated agricultural land, while a farmer in Miami County paid $7,319 per acre. If both paid taxes on the true market value of the land, the latter’s tax burden would be more than seven times that of the former. Market prices aren’t set by farmers in individual states, they’re set by commodities buyers who these days look at national and international supply and demand; they won’t offer a Kansas farmer a nickel more just because his taxes went up. Forty-three states use production value for a reason: it’s more equitable. Farms have depended as much on increasing efficient production for profits as they have on commodities prices. Under the premise of farmers paying their fair share of costs for the roads they use, it would seem more equitable to raise the percentage of production value taxed rather than to switch to a true market value system.

HARRY: Put GPS chips on every Marion County vehicle — every car, truck, recreational vehicle, motorcycle, ATV, and every piece of farm machinery — and turn over county roads to a private company. That company would build and maintain roads, and charge per mile driven based on vehicle type, weight, and use. The company would be a major source of non-government employment. There would likely be less traffic since low-income folks would have to figure out ways not to drive very much.

DAVID: The federal Telecommunications Act forbids private companies from collecting such data without an individual’s consent, and I suspect I’m not alone when I say it would be a cold day in hell before I let some private company bird-dog my every move around the county.

Then again, I guess I already have, at least when I forget to turn off location services on my Android cell phone. My Google account tells me that May 7 my phone and I got to work 15 minutes late, at 9:15 a.m., but stayed until 6:13 p.m. Then I went on a country drive that included a stop at French Creek Cove from 8:08 to 8:18 p.m., and I got home at 8:54 p.m. Don’t fret, iPhone users, Apple has the same sort of tracking capabilities.

That kind of data, in even more detail, is what Harry suggests turning over to a private monopoly that would set charges not only to build and maintain roads, but to make a profit. Current privatization efforts focus mainly on high-volume, toll-based highways; its questionable whether rural road systems generate sufficient traffic to support similar efforts.

Fuel excise taxes, which vary with the type of fuel, already tax miles driven, although those with more fuel-efficient vehicles pay less than those with gas guzzlers. Fuel would cost more if the tax went up, and low-income drivers would be disproportionately affected, but revenue would increase and decisions about road maintenance would remain subject to voter pressure.

HARRY: Demand that the legislature rescind the tax break given to TransCanada for the Keystone pipeline, which has taken away from the county about $12 million in lost revenue so far, and will take $18 million more before the exemption expires. The 300 “outraged citizens” that attended the county roads meeting should go to Topeka to make this demand.

DAVID: Even the tax deal’s most ardent opponent, commissioner Dan Holub, has thrown in the towel on this approach. The tax break was a ridiculous, unnecessary gift, but it’s here to stay. Conservative legislators consistently demonstrated this past session that they care more for rigid ideology than public opinion, and there’s no political payoff for changing a decision that didn’t affect most of the counties they represent. The best folks can hope is that the mistake isn’t repeated if a second pipeline comes through.

So, there you have it, Harry and David. We’re telling you something you don’t want to hear: Marion County roads aren’t going to get any better, and will likely get worse, without an infusion of more cash. Is there an answer among our differing viewpoints? Are there other alternatives out there? It’s a debate that’s long overdue, and this discussion is merely a starting point.

Or, is the answer simple resignation to live within our means, to put up with the pitfalls and potholes of an increasingly antiquated county road and bridge system?

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 21, 2015

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