Flathead County, home to one of the most politically conservative populations in Montana, is probably the last place you’d expect to find a Republican calling for new taxes and increased regulation.
But a perfect dust storm has pushed the county into a corner, and now Republican County Commissioner Gary Hall is asking for a gas tax and reduced speed limits.
When the United States Congress went into recess late last year, it allowed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Act of 2000 (SRS) to expire. The original version of the legislation, passed in 1908, redistributed 25 percent of revenue earned on national forests to counties containing national forest land, to make up for taxes that would have been paid were those properties privately held. In 2000, Congress replaced the original bill with SRS, which maintained that county funding at historical levels, even as national forest revenues declined.
But when SRS lapsed this fall, congress failed to renew it, and now county governments expect to lose millions.
Hall, who is vice chair of the National Forest Counties and Schools coalition, says he is going to Washington, D.C., with other members of the coalition to lobby for restoration of the funding, but, he says, there will most likely be a gap for 2008.
Flathead County’s total loss will be $1.5 million. About $800,000 of that had been earmarked for the County Road and Bridge Department. The rest was distributed to public schools. The Bush administration has proposed a fix for the school-funding portion of SRS’ shortfall: selling off National Forest land to private interests. That proposal has met with stiff opposition from U.S. congressmen, including Sen. Max Baucus.
But there is no federal fix, unpopular or otherwise, proposed for county road department budgets, and that, according to County Roads Superintendent Charlie Johnson, is going to be a problem.
The SRS money provided one-sixth of the Flathead’s road budget, and even with it, Johnson says, his department was strapped for cash. His department no longer builds new roads, instead requiring developers in the rapidly sprawling county to build their own. The county can barely afford maintenance on the roads it already has.
In order to compensate for the loss of SRS funding, Hall has floated the idea of a countywide 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax. That could potentially ease the loss of funding by raising about $500,000, part of which would have to be split with city governments.
Hall likes the gas tax for several reasons, noting that “It’s an opportunity for tourists to help with our infrastructure.”
To implement the tax Hall and his fellow commissioners would have to vote to put it on a ballot, and county voters would have to approve it.
“It’s going to be a hard sell,” Hall admits.
But even if it’s implemented, the gas tax may be too little, too late.
Flathead County has more than 700 miles of gravel roads that it has never had the cash to pave. Those roads, it turns out, are exacerbating the county’s funding problems.
For years, according to Larry Alheim Jr., an environmental enforcement specialist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Flathead County has ignored warning letters about the dust pollution coming from its unpaved roads.
Flathead County, Alheim says, has led the state in dust complaints since 1998. In 2006, Alheim says, 42 Flathead County residents signed on to nine complaints.
Johnson admits that the dust problem is bad.
“It’s become an epidemic, to be honest with you,” he says. “I live on a gravel road myself. It’s terrible.”
In the past, Alheim says, the state sent out informal letters to make the county aware of the problem.
But, he says, “This time, due to the number of complaints and the gravity of the situation, the state sent a more formal letter.”
County officials admit that they didn’t respond to the letter, or to subsequent follow-ups.
According to Commissioner Hall, that’s because the county can’t afford to deal with the problem.
Finally, in January, the state fined Flathead County $29,000 for air quality violations. If the county can come up with a plan to handle its dust problem by April 1, it could reduce that fine by $18,200. If the county does not come up with a plan, it could be fined an additional $10,000 per day.
Hall says that he tried to deal with the dust problem years ago, when he first proposed the idea of a gas tax.
“That was one of the reasons I proposed it,” he says. “I was looking at this as a way for us to catch up.”
He says he received broad support for the tax, but then gas prices skyrocketed and the idea became a nonstarter.
Now, with the expected loss in federal funding, Hall says the tax would go toward trying to maintain the status quo. Financially, he says, there is simply no way the county can afford to pave or even do dust abatement on the roads.
Hall spoke to the Independent from Helena, where he was lobbying for HB 546, which would allow counties to reduce speed limits to control pollution on unpaved roads. He says the only way to comply with state standards, without additional funding, is to lower the speed limit on gravel roads to 15 mph. At press time, HB 546 had been tabled.
Hall acknowledges that his proposed solutions to the county’s road problem are not likely to be popular with his constituency, but, he says, “When you’re in a position of responsibility to watch over the health, safety and welfare of citizens, you look at reality—you see the real picture.”