If our residents are the lifeblood of our communities, the roads they travel upon are the arteries. Road maintenance is one of the primary functions of county government and ensuring safe and passable roads is vital to allowing for commerce, promoting public safety and getting our kids to school.
As the second largest county in the nation, at 18,661 square miles, Coconino County has many challenges. The size of the county, as well as the large amount of state, federal and tribal land (87 percent), makes us dependent on our partners to ensure our roads are safe and passable for our county residents.
The County currently maintains 552 miles of County-owned roads, 252 miles of U.S. Forest Service roads and 212 miles of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) roads on the Navajo Nation. While it’s a duty entrusted to the County, through agreements with federal agencies, overseeing the maintenance and upkeep of our rural road system has become ever more expensive for our taxpayers.
The turbulent economy, coupled with the raising costs of fuel, equipment and the uncertainty of state and federal financial support, has placed additional pressure on the County’s already limited resources. The State of Arizona has continued to divert Highway User Revenue Funds (HURF) from counties to cover state costs (more to come on this topic in the next issue).
But critical to many road projects is the $4 million in federal funding the County has traditionally received under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, known as SRS.
In July, Congress approved a short-term reauthorization of SRS, which expired Sept. 30, 2011. The reauthorization extends federal funding to the County until Sept. 30, 2012. Through that agreement, our communities rely upon approximately $4 million in funding to invest in road maintenance, schools and the County’s lifesaving search and rescue efforts.
In 1908, it was enacted that 25 percent of Forest Service revenues from timber sales, mineral resources and grazing fees were to be returned to counties and states. However, because those payments to local governments fluctuated as market forces acted on those particular industries, county and state governments were unable to rely on them as a steady source of revenue.
In 2000, Congress approved SRS to help stabilize funding to the nation’s counties by producing predictable payments, which could be utilized toward local educational and road maintenance efforts. Those collecting the funds must also reinvest up to 20 percent of the funding into projects that benefit the National Forests.
The County providing road maintenance across jurisdictions provides efficiencies through “economies of scale” for our taxpayers. That being said, the County must act prudently in determining how to best leverage tax dollars.
Recently, the County worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation to produce a road maintenance contract for projects on BIA property. That agreement is one that meets the needs of citizens without using County funds to subsidize the contract.
Similarly, we have initiated an analysis to determine if the cost of maintenance on other federal roads relative to federal funding available has increased efficiency for all operations.
While county officials recognize the need for the federal government to cut overall spending as a means to reduce the nation’s deficit, we also recognize that we have made tough choices locally to balance our budget.
What is clear is that our national leaders must fund a lasting solution to ensure SRS or another funding source is available to meet our county’s needs. FBN
Interim County Manager Mike Townsend is a lifelong resident of Flagstaff.