You don't get a lot of argument about the need to keep bridges in good repair.
It's a national problem. According to this year's report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, four of 10 bridges need to be repaired or replaced. In Indiana, 3,386 bridges need repair, of which 1,203 are classified as structurally deficient. That means “one of the key elements is in poor or worse condition,” the association says.
To fix all the nation's bridges that need work would require an estimated $171 billion, according to the association; in Indiana, the price tag would be $1.6 billion.
Viewed from that perspective, the Allen County commissioners' decision to increase the ceiling on the bridge-maintenance tax from $.0129 per $100 of assessed value to $.0224 doesn't sound outlandish. For a home assessed at $100,000, that would mean an extra $9.50 a year in property taxes; farmers, of course, would pay more. Further, the county commissioners say there actually would be no added burden for taxpayers because potential increases would be offset by the retirement of two bonds in which county residents are now paying.
One question, though, is what would have transpired had Fort Wayne not decided in 2017 to take a separate path on bridge repair. Under a 2009 interlocal agreement, Allen County communities contributed a portion of their wheel tax revenue in return for services through the county's bridge-repair program. But when that agreement was to be renewed in 2017, Fort Wayne decided to fund its own bridge-repair program. That program is now paid for by the city's portion of the wheel tax, as well as through state gas tax revenue and other public-works funds, according to city spokesman John Perlich.
A group called Neighborhoods United, which opposes increases, has petitioned the state Department of Local Government Finance to review the county's decision. One of its leaders, John Modezjewski, told The Journal Gazette's Rosa Salter Rodriguez that Neighborhoods United is not against the county maintaining safe bridges. But Modezjewski is among those who would like to see the county tap into surplus funds to get at least some of the work done.
Another is Nick Jordan, the county auditor. “It's definitely possible,” he said in an interview Thursday. Jordan said he has told commissioners, “I thought we could easily come up with a couple million dollars over three to five years to offset bridge projects.”
Jordan explained the county's money is spread among more than 200 accounts. But he has identified a dozen accounts that consistently have surpluses and could be used to fund bridge maintenance. At the end of April, he said, those surpluses stood at $95 million.
“There is a surplus,” Commissioner Rich Beck agreed Thursday, but “there is a plan for those funds.” One fund, for instance, holds county economic-development income tax money that is already allocated for projects, he said. Another is a rainy-day account controlled by the County Council. “We are looking at five years down the road,” he said, adding surpluses today might disappear during an economic downturn.
Thus, the commissioners decided the best way to ensure that the vital task of bridge maintenance continues to get done is to raise the assessment ceiling, which will be offset by the bond retirements.
Even after raising that ceiling, Commissioner Nelson Peters said Thursday, the county may be forced to dip into other funds to take care of a short-term gap during the next few years.
It's not clear whether the Local Government Finance agency will consider the question of county surpluses in other areas during its review of the bridge assessment. “We don't know if it's just going to be about the procedure that took place or the actual rate itself,” Peters said.
The bridge-funding questions will move to another stage after the assessment-ceiling issue is resolved: This fall, the County Council will decide the actual assessment levies for the coming year.
Citizens have the right to speak out, and county officials have the obligation to see that this vital maintenance gets done. The debate over how best to do that is a healthy one, and should continue.