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Survey says? Roads need help

Butler County residents are most concerned with repairing rural roads according to a survey mailed out by the county commission in November.

The commission mailed 11,000 surveys to households in Butler County, receiving back 1,231. Over 700 responses had repairing and resurfacing rural roads as the issue commissioners should give the most consideration to.

“I think when we mailed out the surveys we all probably knew that roads would come in first,” said chairman Jesse McWilliams (Dist. 2).

But finding those funds for repairs is going to be difficult. The commission also asked citizens if they would be willing to increase ad valorem tax or sales tax to fund road repairs.

The responses were generally negative.

Of those surveyed, 751 said no to an increase in property tax, while 216 said yes. The possibility of a sales tax increase was received somewhat better: 378 yes votes to 607 nos.

The issue is a hot topic at nearly every commission meeting, especially with Commissioner Jerry Hartin (Dist. 1). Of the 550 miles of paved roads in the county, 41 percent of those are in Hartin’s district, according to data compiled by the engineering department.

34 percent of the county’s dirt roads are also in District 1.

“People do not want to hear there’s no money,” said Hartin. “We were doing the least we could do with what we had, but then the rains came and softened the road beds. Now there are potholes popping up as quickly as the patch man can patch them. There’s going to have to be a new revenue stream somewhere.”

Commissioner Lynn Harold Watson (Dist. 5) said this might be an issue where commissioners shouldn’t consider the political implications of a tax increase.

Commissioners come up for re-election in 2012.

“We’ve got people in this county dragging their oil pans trying to get down a road,” said Watson. “I had a woman call me that couldn’t leave her home to go to a funeral because the road needed to be fixed…we’re going to have to find some dang money somewhere.”

Commissioner Jimmy Crum, (Dist. 4), agreed with Watson.

“If nobody votes for me – and I do plan to run – and we’re able to do something about these roads, then so be it,” said Crum.

The county’s main funding for road repair is its share of the state’s gasoline tax and that funding has declined steadily for the last decade. An estimated half of the county’s budget for roads comes from the tax, which is based on gallons sold, not cost per gallon.

“The mistake people make is that our revenue increases when the price of gasoline goes up, which is not the case,” said engineer Dennis McCall. “It actually decreases because people are driving less.

Plus, rural counties like Butler are handicapped as far as the distribution of the gasoline tax goes. McCall said all counties receive 30 percent of the gasoline tax collected, but the larger metropolitan areas – like Mobile, Jefferson, and Shelby, for example – receive 70 percent of that tax.

“Prior to the 1970s it was split equally 50-50, but it was changed after that,” said McCall. “What’s shocking is if you pull up a budget from the 70s and compare it with the budget we have today, it’s basically the same budget. But the cost of everything has quadrupled. Rural counties are in survival mode.”

Property taxes in Alabama are the lowest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, and the state and local sales tax burden consistently ranks below the national average. Commissioner Frank Hickman, (Dist. 3), said while lower taxes greatly benefit individual landowners and consumers, it also makes it harder for governmental entities to address issues like roads. The result is a county strapped for cash trying to manage its money the best it can, said Hickman.

“I think we do a great job of managing what funds we have here in Butler County,” said Hickman.

McWilliams said after reading the surveys he didn’t believe the people should bear the burden of a tax if it’s something they do not want. He said he would like the commission to work with legislators to change the re-distribution of the gasoline tax to benefit rural counties more.

Funding for the sheriff’s office to operate 24 hours per day was second on the surveys. The third-most concern was more funding for Butler County’s 15 volunteer fire departments.