Rising material costs, expensive truck fuel, increased hauling fees and diminishing revenues are literally putting Nodaway County between a rock and a hard place when it comes to graveling approximately 1,000 miles of rural roads.
South District Commissioner Robert Stiens — the County Commission's point man for transportation issues — said last week that the squeeze, precipitated by high rock prices and other factors, means the county and its 15 townships may soon be forced to look for new revenue sources.
"We're going to have to work together to solve this problem," said Stiens, who noted that one area quarry has raised its gravel price from $10 to $13 a ton. Other local suppliers are charging more as well, though the increases are smaller.
In an effort to get a handle on the problem, the commission plans to meet with representatives from Nodaway's 15 townships on March 20.
Though many town dwellers may think Nodaway County is responsible for maintaining gravel and dirt roads, that is only partly the case, since Nodaway is one of only 22 Missouri counties out of 114 still operating under the township system.
Subordinate to but separate from a county, townships are remnants of a time when most Americans grew crops and livestock for a living, and relatively isolated communities of small farmers took it upon themselves to keep roads open and bridges in good repair.
As has been the case for decades, township revenues come almost exclusively from local property taxes. In recent years however, those levies have maxed out against a 90-cent cap per $100 of assessed valuation, meaning that income stays flat while costs continue to rise.
Much of the burden has been assumed by the county, which currently pays 77.7 percent of the cost for maintenance gravel in each township, a formula that translates to $525 per mile of road for the county and $150 per mile as the township's share.
Given the number of gravel roads in what is geographically the state's fifth largest county, that is simply not enough money, Stiens said.
Current gravel costs mean Nodaway townships will spread between 42 and 50 tons of gravel per mile on their roads this spring and summer, which Stiens said is about half the amount needed to do the job right.
In addition to expensive rock, Stiens said the county is also receiving fewer transportation dollars from the state, because those funds are derived from gasoline taxes, and more and motorists are opting for energy efficient vehicles.
To regain some of the lost ground, townships have begun asking their voters to approve "rock bonds," a financing scheme requiring townships to pay back the borrowed money in three years.
That's not a completely satisfactory system, since there is no guarantee the bonds will pass, and the roads still need to be graveled regardless of what voters decide.
Page 2 of 2 - Nodaway is not the only county that's struggling to keep rural roads in passable condition, and some, including Atchison to the west and Andrew to the south, have implemented a countywide transportation sales tax.
Another possible source of new revenue is a proposal by the Missouri Legislature that would give voters a chance to approve a 1-cent statewide sales tax earmarked for transportation infrastructure. Proponents say such a tax would raise nearly $7.92 billion, 5 percent of which would flow back to the counties.
A third solution that no one really wants to think about for now is the path taken by the majority of Missouri counties — end the township system and increase revenues, meaning taxes, at the county level.
The commission has stopped short of calling for change that drastic, but Stiens admits it's something voters may have to confront someday.
"We've got to do something," he said.