Routt County weighs budget crunch against road maintenance
Steamboat Springs — County officials immersed themselves in the lingo of road paving Tuesday — double chip-and-seals and wheel rutting — as they surveyed a preliminary Road and Bridge Department budget of about $9.6 million in hopes of finding a way to create room in the overall county budget.
“The best news is that our paved roads are deteriorating at a lesser rate than in the past,” Road and Bridge Director Paul Draper told the three county commissioners. Also attending the meeting were County Manager Tom Sullivan, Finance Director Dan Strnad, Accounting Manager Carol Comeau and Senior Engineer Heather McLaughlin.
The economic recession and resulting construction slump in rural Routt County has meant fewer heavy trucks pounding county roads that in some cases weren’t built to take it, Draper said.
The Road and Bridge Department represents the single biggest county department in terms of expenditures, outside the Sheriff’s Office, and Sullivan asked Draper to give the commissioners an advance look at his budget this week.
Strnad told the commissioners he is revising his sales tax revenue projections down another 5 percent from the 26 percent decrease he already had forecast in a draft of the new budget. And he’s increasingly wary that the state will get its hands into the county’s cookie jar and raid highway user taxes and mineral leasing funds typically rebated to Routt County.
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Sullivan made it plain that he favors deferring the county’s practice of annually setting aside large sums in order to be able to pay cash for asphalt overlay paving projects 10 to 20 years down the road.
“At $1 million a year, you buy a lot of time with just one year,” Sullivan said.
Throughout this decade, as the county’s property valuation zoomed upward, the county increased the annual amount it set aside from the mid-six figures to $4 million and $5 million a year.
Sullivan’s calculus is easy to follow, but the rub could come with finding the right balance of economizing and protecting the county’s investment in its roads.
Draper told the commissioners he’s devoted to restoring county roads once every seven years with at least a chip-and-seal treatment to keep water from penetrating the surface.
Draper said county roads are inspected annually and given a score based on visible signs of wear. The inspections aren’t made so much to provide a basis for decision on major repairs but to track their condition from year to year.
“We know that our roads deteriorate from the top down,” Draper said. “We want to treat the road before it cracks and breaks. Otherwise, you have to live with that crack forever.”
It’s cost effective in the long run, he said, to treat the roads before cracks develop.
Tentatively this year, the Road and Bridge Department proposes to spend $1.03 million on chip-and-seal projects that would serve to seal out water in the short run without necessitating a costlier asphalt overlay. The cost of paving is about $185,000 a mile, while the cost of a chip-and-seal is about $35,000 a mile.
In some cases, a chip-and-seal could be a bridge to a future overlay. But at this time, county officials said there are no overlays in the 2010 budget and there are no plans for any in 2011.
However, Draper is recommending double chip-and-seals for two stretches of county road south of Steamboat that are not in particularly good condition. One is Routt County Road 14 from the intersection with C.R. 14F at the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to Routt County Road 22. A second is Routt County Road 18 in Pleasant Valley.
The two-step process would put down smaller chips over a first run of larger chips.
Routt County paints black fog seal over chip-and-seal projects to make them more durable and to promote snow melting, Draper added.
The list of roads tentatively scheduled for a chip-and-seal include Routt County Road 64 in North Routt at an estimated cost of $280,306, and two stretches of Routt County Road 129 (Elk River Road) with a combined cost of more than $350,000. They include the stretch from Big Creek to Routt County Road 54 and from Moonhill to the Elk River Gravel Pit.
Commissioner Doug Monger said at the end of the meeting he felt it had been valuable to work through some of the puzzle pieces of the Road and Bridge budget and insert them back into the big picture.
The county budget process begins in earnest with public hearings later this month.
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