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County runs transportation levy

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POLSON — A road grader costs an astounding $240,000, and Lake County’s newest grader is a 1996 model. And years of hard work on the county roads is beginning to catch up quickly on the county's road maintenance rigs.

To try and deal with aging equipment and the rising cost of parts and supplies, Lake County will have a transportation levy to consider on the June ballot.

Lake County Commissioner Paddy Trusler said basically Lake County is at a point where, in order to continue with at least similar maintenance and service, a levy is needed. 

“What the levy is intended to do is deal with equipment and the maintenance of hard-surfaced roads,” Trusler explained. 

The levy is asking for 20 mills for five years. Then on year six, the levy will drop to five mills permanently. The type of levy is a sunset levy. 

With the levied funds, Lake County would purchase two road graders and two new trucks, as well as miscellaneous equipment such as rollers, loaders, etc. The levy would also guarantee the purchase of oil for resurfacing 20 miles of hard-surfaced road each year.

Also the cost of road oil has risen from $195 a ton in 1996 to $740 a ton in 2009. With 280 miles of hard-surfaced roads in Lake County and the life span of a chip-sealed road at about 10 years, the county needs to chip-seal 20 miles of hard surfaced roads each year in addition to what’s currently done so the resurfacing cycle can be maintained. 

As for how much the levy will cost, an individual with a $200,000 house will pay about $74 a year for five years, and then drop down to about $19 per year, Trusler said, “less than a load of gravel.”

“Why now?” Trusler asked, anticipating what voters are likely to ask. 

Trusler explained that the Montana State Legislature caps the number of mills and caps the number of dollars any county can generate. 

“Lake County is basically capped at the max,” Trusler said. 

Every year the state sends new certified values, which are put in the legislative formula. This formula caps the amount of money Lake County can collect. Since the 1996 new appraisals, Trusler said the money is flat; the only place Lake County could generate revenue is from new construction. 

With the property reappraisals in 2009 and not much new construction, Lake County is stuck. The tax base stays about the same but costs for new machinery, tires, gas, parts and wages go up, Trusler noted. 

“Taxes equals services,” Trusler said. And in the face of rising cost, “If you can’t increase revenues, you have to decrease your services.”

If the levy is successful, it will show up on the November tax bills. 

If it’s unsuccessful, Trusler said, “The sad fact is, if we can’t maintain the chip-sealed roads, they’ll be turned back into gravel.”

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