Officials: Budget keeps city from using road tax from county for roads

May 10, 2014 11:02:03 PM

Nathan Gregory - [email protected]


Columbus councilmen will consider a $5 million bond issue to finance road and infrastructure renovations when they meet May 20 even though the county provides the city roughly $500,000 annually for road maintenance. 


That money currently goes into the city's general fund, however, and is not set aside specifically for road maintenance in the annual budget.  


During a public hearing last month for discussion of a possible bond for road and infrastructure improvements, city engineering consultant Kevin Stafford said that in the future, the city would need to spend about $500,000 each year on paving and maintaining the city's roads without requiring another bond like the one under consideration now. 


Asked Thursday about the average life of city streets compared to the proposed 15-year payback plan for borrowing the $5 million, Stafford said well-maintained residential roads can last 15 to 20 years. 


"Some people were out there thinking asphalt only lasts six or seven years," Stafford said. "We haven't paved a single street twice since we started tracking the program in 1998. That's 16 years and we haven't paved a street twice." 


Lowndes County Tax Assessor Greg Andrews collects taxes on behalf of the city, one of which is categorically designated for road maintenance. State law states that counties pay one half of ad valorem taxes to municipalities if counties don't maintain municipal roads. The city of Columbus maintains its own roads. However, state law does not require cities to use what they are paid strictly for road or infrastructure maintenance. 


What Columbus collects goes into its general fund, along with ad valorem revenues and sales tax revenue from businesses inside city limits. This is a common practice among small- and medium-sized municipalities with limited tax bases, according to Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong. 


"The only places that can (finance sizable infrastructure projects) out of the general fund are the places where a mill is worth over a million (dollars)," Armstrong said. 


Ideally, using funds collected on behalf of the city intended for road maintenance would be utilized as such, Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said. That practice could be considered in future budget years, the mayor said. Realistically, however, there are few Mississippi towns with the financial power to make that happen, he said. The vast majority of major paving and infrastructure upgrades that have taken place during Smith's 14 years as a city official have been done with bonds, he said.  


"(The county road tax) is used for that to a certain extent, but you just put it into the general fund," Smith said. "You don't just line item and say $535,000 a year specifically for road maintenance." 


If it passes, servicing the bond debt will mean a 1.1 property tax increase for city residents. That means, for example, an extra $11 a year on top of what an owner of a $100,000 parcel already pays. Under the proposed plan, the remaining amount after engineering firm Neel-Schaffer, project managing firm J5 Broaddus, city and bond counsel each get a cut, will be split evenly among the city's six wards.  


Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said he would like to see the city specifically dedicate some funding each year in the future toward road projects beyond routine fillings of potholes and patchings of worn-down spots. 


"I think the money is designated by the taxpayers from the county for the city to do road maintenance and...some of that money is going back for its intentional use," Gavin said. "But it does go in the general fund, and therefore it makes it a lot easier for the council to dip in it to rob Peter to pay Paul. I really would like to see us designate that money to do nothing but road maintenance whether we designate a portion of it to fill potholes with and another to do small paving with." 


Neel-Schaffer is working with councilmen to identify the most crucial road improvements in their wards, while J5 Broaddus is helping them find the most crucial non-road infrastructure needs, such as drainage and sidewalk projects. Of each category, what is decided as most pressing by each ward leader will be addressed with the bond issue. Senior project manager Robyn Eastman of J5 Broaddus said last week that he was "85 percent done" with infrastructure surveys, while Stafford said he's been in contact with each councilman to prioritize paving projects. 


A 1,500-signature petition would take the $5 million bond issue out of the city council's hands and put it on a ballot for Columbus citizens to vote on. There is no known petition against the millage increase in circulation at the present time.

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.