Ellis County will move fast to nail down low interest rates in the bond market to pay for as many as eight road and bridge projects totaling an estimated $5.36 million.
Going to the bond market is the next step after the county in April won approval from voters for a quarter-cent sales tax to fix county infrastructure.
Even so, the county commissioners were told Monday evening they should look at raising the mill levy too, something the three commissioners have resisted.
Interim County Administrator Darin Myers delivered the bad news at the Ellis County Commission’s regular meeting Monday.
Myers said he and public works director Bill Ring strongly advocate raising the mill levy annually to sock away money each year for future road and bridge projects.
The planned bond issue, covered by proceeds from the 10-year sales tax that starts Oct. 1, only covers a short list of projects. The projects have been delayed for years as the county used road and bridge money to cover other budget shortfalls.
"I know it’s nice to be able to keep that mill levy down," Myers said. "But the best interest of the county is to be able to continue to raise that mill levy up. Because if we commit a $5 million, $6 million bond and the mill levy isn’t raised, we know where our budget sits at today; there is no money going to public works for any of these other projects that need to be done."
Not raising the mill levy means the county loses about $250,000 a year in tax revenue, Myers said, adding up to $2.5 million in 10 years.
"I know that’s tough, but that’s the harsh reality," he said. "And 10 years from now, we could be sitting here, exact same discussion, begging and pleading for another sales tax so you can do another $5 million bond."
Big projects are already looming, he said, noting the HVAC in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main, needs replaced, and the HVAC in the Law Enforcement Center, 105 W. 12th, went out on Sunday, as well as new blacktop on Catherine Road alone is a multi-million dollar project.
Meanwhile, Myers said the county should move fast on the 10-year general obligation bonds for the handful of projects that Ring presented Monday evening.
In the current financial climate, interest rates a month ago were a very low 1.4% and by Monday had fallen even lower, to .836%, Myers said.
The commissioners told Myers to get the county’s bond counsel at work right away.
"I would say if he could get here right away, next week is fine, start making some decisions, and putting out that bond," said County Commissioner Dustin Roths.
Ring said 5% of the money raised must be committed to specific road and bridge projects within six months.
That could easily be accomplished by committing an initial $2 million or so to a large project, he said. For example, he suggested, the planned $10.8 million Northwest Business Corridor, which will improve three county roads and create a 55-mph bypass around Hays for north-south US-183 highway. In three years, 85% of the bond money raised must be committed to projects, and in five years, 100% must be completed, Ring said.
Laundry list of 8
The commissioners on a recent road tour got a close look at some of the county’s biggest road and bridge problems. From those, Ring drew up a list of the top eight: Northwest Business Corridor, which is 240th and Feedlot Road; a new deck on Bridge No. 120 over the Saline River north of Ellis; rebuilding the county’s section of Cathedral Road in Victoria; the bridge deck on Old-40 highway at Vincent Road; Noose Road bridge west of the Yocemento grain elevator; Feedlot Road between 230th and 210th; 48th Street from Roth to Hall; and Commerce Parkway from Interstate 70 to 27th Street/Airbase Road.
Other areas needing work include: the Cottonwood bridge on 15th Street in Ellis; 6 miles of Catherine Road north of I-70; the 5 southernmost miles of Ellis blacktop; and various culverts.
"We have a large need and we know we don’t have the funding that it takes right now," Ring said. "Unfortunately when we talk about my infrastructure, it’s extremely costly."
County commissioners Roths and Dean Haselhorst both said they’d like to go out and look at some of the projects again before they make a final decision on their order of priority.
Having talked to engineers about the various projects, there are lots of decisions to be made about each one, Ring said, which will take time. He and Myers recommended moving forward with issuing the bonds, get the big projects rolling to meet the required threshold of the bond, then sorting out the details of the various projects later.
There are lots of things to consider for each project, he noted, such as the bridge at the Yocemento elevator, which one engineer suggested should be replaced. "Do we put a half-a-million dollars in a 90-year-old bridge that’s too narrow and is one of the heaviest traveled bridges in the county?" Ring quoted the engineer.
Likewise there’s the county road west of the planned Northwest Business Corridor.
"That’s 2.5 miles," Ring said. "We could go a million, we could go 2 million. …Then what kind of road do we want to put in there? If they’re talking about increasing the cattle facility out there, that puts a heck of a beating, with all those semis, on a road. Do we put a six-inch base in with nine inches of asphalt material?"
With so many factors at play in the economy now, Ring said the engineers all cautioned that the true cost of each project won’t be known until bids are opened.
To seek KDOT grants
Meanwhile, he said, the Kansas Department of Transportation has a variety of road and bridge programs it occasionally rolls out. The county can stretch its dollars if it can win KDOT matching grants.
"It’s projected they’ll have opportunities for million-dollar programs," Ring said, noting Bridge No. 120 over the Saline as a candidate.
Instead of spending $500,000 for a new deck, he said, "if we can put a new $2 million bridge on it, and spend a million, and get a bridge that’s going to last another 80 years, where are we better off using our dollars?"
In the past, the county has applied for KDOT’s bridge swap-out program, but there are usually three times as many applications as dollars available, he said.
"We’ve applied for that four years straight. It’s a million-dollar ask for that bridge in the back of Ellis," Ring said. "I plan to keep up-to-date on if something does come out, but if not, I think we need to have somewhat of a plan in place that if we’re going to deck that bridge over the Saline, let’s make that commitment. It’ll take a year of engineering minimum, to get it all laid out. Then you gotta build it."
Roths said the big question is whether Hays and the other cities will help with any of the projects that involve their towns. The commission already asked Hays to give up to $1 million toward the Northwest Business Corridor, but hasn’t received an answer. Upgrades to 48th Street are another, he said, with "the potential for us to have the city of Hays look at a nice road that they could annex, as opposed to a road that is just heavily traveled and beat to death."
Victoria’s Cathedral Street is another example, Roths said.
"I would hate to do the bare minimum on a project like that and not at least have the discussion about doing it really well, and what they can come to the table with if anything at all," he said. "We have an obligation to them obviously, but I’d like to know about what they want us to do and what they’re expecting. That way we don’t disappoint them, but also we don’t spend an exorbitant amount of money and it’s not exactly what they need or wanted."
If there is any money left over, Schlyer said, "We could simply expand the project list."
Meanwhile, Roths said, "I think this will be a good start to the next 10, 20 years of infrastructure for Ellis County."