In the closing days of election seasons, candidates send out their last big ideas about the offices they seek. They want to leave just one more positive impression about the thoughtful stewardship they offer and their compassion to work for the community.
Public interest in government, though, generally can be boiled down to three solid questions:
- How are the roads?
- Where are the cops?
- What’s that smell?
In 2014, potholes are politics. The unforgiving winter damaged asphalt surfaces and drained local budgets, creating a huge problem with no good solution. The road-funding formula, under the control of the General Assembly, is set. Local governments have little choice other than to dip into income tax sources, supporting road work while risking service cuts elsewhere.
Matt Greller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, suggested this week lawmakers may need to adjust how funds are distributed. He said factoring in where people work could play a part in how the money is directed, adding, "The money has to follow the services."
Greller’s idea is great because Elkhart County is a job destination – the net 17,400 commuters we have could mean great gains in funding. Greller’s idea is not so great because the condition of the road in the first mile people drive is just as important to them as the last mile, regardless of where they live and work.
The idea’s been floated that alternative-fuel vehicles and greater fuel economy standards have resulted in reduced road funding for everyone. While possible, the story is incomplete.
Since 1995, Elkhart County government alone has realized a $1.4 million increase in the money dedicated from gasoline taxes and other state sources. That growth basically all occurred in the first 10 years studied, though. For 2013, the money supplied directly to the county’s highway and streets funds was about $6.1 million total, just a shade less than the high-water mark achieved in 2004.
The Great Recession greatly contributed to a dip in resources from 2008-12, causing street and highway departments to fall further behind in routine maintenance. The 2013 bounce may have been helped by a state budget shuffle which included dedicating some of the general sales tax to road needs.
(The data leaves out the local wheel tax, which was intended to be a supplement, not a cure-all. It also does not include the 1997-2001 distributions of lottery funds for local roads. State officials warned all along local budgets shouldn’t be balanced on gaming revenues – but while they said the funding source wasn’t stable, what they meant was, “We will have other uses for this cash.”)
So, state funding may not be the problem. Instead, think materials - the price of oil greatly impacts the cost of asphalt.
In 2000, the county highway department could pave a road for about $50,000 per mile. In 2007, the figure was up to $74,000. And just last week at the “Pitch and Pull” candidate forum offered by the Greater Elkhart Chamber and The Truth, commissioner Frank Lucchese said the bill is running $100,000 per mile.
Same money, less buying power. Roads failing to receive the proper maintenance because the dollars don’t stretch are more likely to flop and crumble when the thaw occurs.
So, how are the roads? A simple question that’s tough to answer.