SIOUX CITY -- The process to reaching a consensus on how to fund a major road reconstruction program could be as bumpy as Woodbury County's deteriorating gravel roads.
With cost estimates of $10 million or higher, county leaders are looking at a number of options to borrow money to pay for enough gravel to upgrade all 938 miles of Woodbury County's gravel roads.
Rural county taxpayers could see a tax increase to cover the cost of repaying that debt. The county also could tap into tax increment financing revenues generated by CF Industries' $2 billion expansion to its Port Neal complex south of Sioux City to offset some of the costs and ease the burden on taxpayers.
"I think we're at a tipping point where we can't afford to let these roads get any worse," Woodbury County Board of Supervisors chairman Rocky De Witt said Tuesday, when the board heard a number of funding options.
The board made no decisions. Rather, the meeting served as a starting point for discussions that will likely last for weeks before a decision can be reached to solve a problem that Woodbury County engineer Mark Nahra said has been building for 30 years.
"We'll either tread water or we'll lose ground over the next decade if we don't do anything to reverse this," Nahra said.
The condition of the county's gravel roads has been a frequent topic brought up by rural residents attending public outreach meetings. Nahra said the gravel base on most roads has thinned from 6-8 inches to 2-4 inches because of a number of factors. Chief among those are an increase in truck traffic and budget constraints and inflation that limits the amount of gravel the county can buy to resurface its roads.
Figures Nahra provided to the board showed that the county paid $1.4 million for 136,500 tons of gravel in 2017. In 2003, the county bought 130,000 tons for $640,000. Instead of resurfacing every mile of gravel road annually as was done until about 30 years ago, the county now focuses on covering problem spots and high-traffic areas, Nahra said.
"Each year we see our dollar buying less. We're putting more and more to it but we're getting less and less back," he said. "At some point we need to start looking at reversing that trend if we want to improve our roads."
Increased revenues from the Iowa's gas tax hike three years ago have helped, he said, but not nearly enough.
To add an average of 5 inches of gravel base to every mile of road would require 2 million tons of gravel at a cost of $10 million-$12.5 million. It could cost another $10 million to haul that gravel from the county's pits to the roads being resurfaced. Nahra said the hauling would need to be contracted, because county workers would be busy cleaning out ditches and preparing and rebuilding roads for the new gravel.
County budget director Dennis Butler provided a number of options to buy and pay for the 2 million tons of gravel over a 10-year period beginning in 2020. Those include using TIF revenues, property taxes or a mixture of the two. Tax hikes could be passed onto rural residents only or also extended to city residents. An increased levy, similar to the recently expired five-year levy in which rural residents agreed to be taxed an additional $1.3 million annually for bridge projects, also could be considered.
"This is major," Butler said. "This has never been done before. It's something the board has a chance to be aggressive on."
County officials know they have a long road ahead of them before deciding on a final construction and financing plan.
"We cannot get there overnight, and this will require long-range planning," De Witt said.