A bridge too worn to stand much longer will change the way some road projects in Christian County are funded in the future.
The Christian County Commission voted 3-0 on Oct. 15 to alter the manner in which it dispenses revenue collected through a 1/2-cent transportation sales tax. The county government will begin withholding about half of the money collected from the tax and setting it aside for larger projects. It happened at a meeting with mayors, administrators and special road district commissioners either in attendance at the Christian County Historic Courthouse or listening via conference call.
"We wanted to sit down and collaborate with all of those interested and affected parties with ways that we could address these issues," Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips said.
According to budget records from the Christian County Auditor’s Office, the transportation sales tax generated about $4.2 million in 2019. Most of that money goes directly to road maintenance work in Christian County’s two common road districts, which are overseen by the Eastern and Western district commissioners. The remaining money was dispersed amongst 14 different government entities.
Green Bridge carries Smyrna Road over the Finley River east of Ozark.
"The only way to get to Ozark is 20-plus miles. There are no alternate routes," Phillips said.
Green Bridge was closed to traffic for about a month in 2017. Green Bridge was built in 1912 by the Canton Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio. It was refurbished in 2004. In 2017, it underwent about $50,000 in emergency repairs in the aftermath of an April flooding event.
"We all have individual needs, and this is one of them. I'm speaking of Green Bridge in particular, not because it's my neck of the woods--I just know that the economic impact, the possibility it could have on all of us," Phillips said. "As we all know, bridges are extremely expensive, so we're trying to get creative with our funding. We all know that the majority of our funding comes from general revenue based off of sales tax," Phillips said.
Inspectors indicated that Green Bridge would need to be replaced at the next instance it fails an inspection and is ordered closed by the Missouri Department of Transportation.
"Basically, they said there's nothing else they can do with that bridge," Phillips said.
A replacement for Green Bridge would likely cost at least $3 million to build.
"That's one bridge," Phillips deadpanned. "We've worked very hard to be good stewards of our money and I want to continue to do so in a way that benefits the county as a whole, and not any one entity."
"We continue to apply for grants. So far, we haven't been successful. That could always change," Phillips said.
Commission weighed options
Sales tax revenue for Christian County has been relatively flat for the last three years.
One positive to come from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a slight increase in sales tax revenue because people are doing more local shopping, but Phillips does not expect that trend to continue.
Christian County Highway Administrator Miranda Beadles presented an array of options to the county commission to decide how to distribute about $1 million in available funding.
The option the commissioners chose is for Christian County to withhold about half of the money that is currently available for distribution to cities and special road districts and save it for larger projects in the future, such as the replacement of Green Bridge.
"We're actually contributing toward priority projects," Beadles said. "I'd like to continue assisting the specials."
Working closely with special road districts was key for Eastern District Commissioner Mike Robertson.
"I think we should really take care of our special road districts," Robertson said. "We are a big source of their income."
South Sparta Special Road District Commissioner Phil Short supported the commission's action, but said that it will alter the future for cities. Special road districts, he felt, would be largely spared any loss of revenue.
"It sounds like that's not any big change for the road districts," Short said.
Highlandville Mayor Clint Ellingsworth thanked the commissioners for having the discussion, and said that his city depends on all the revenue it can get to maintain its streets.
"This money really, really helps. We're a small city. I have no tax base, so I have to operate on sales tax only. Going forward with this, this next year, is probably going to hurt, but I'll survive," Ellingsworth said. "If I don't repair roads next year, then what's it going to be the year after?"
Some, but not all of Christian County’s special road districts are experiencing revenue gains through personal property tax.
"Some special road districts' revenues are increasing based on the number of personal property increases," Phillips said.
Another option would have been to revamp the manner in which cities and road districts apply for funding and have their projects scored by a third party engineer.
"The issue with our current scoring system is somebody could have a bridge collapse, and it would be $4 million. Well, with all of the scoring points that we have, that would rank very high, they would get a very high score and then possibly no one else would get any money," Beadles said.
A cap provision stops one entity from automatically taking all of the available money for a single project.
A third option would have been for Christian County to make the applications even more need-based, setting eligibility requirements based on how much money per road mile that an entity needs to spend for maintenance.
Certain entities, namely the cities of Ozark and Nixa, would have likely ceased to receive any funding from the county transportation sales tax, because they bring in more revenue than Christian County.
"We're not giving funding to groups that potentially have more funding than the county," Beadles said. "We'd pick a threshold and the agency would have to say, 'Okay, we actually have less revenue.'"
Cities and villages large and small don't want to lose out on a potential source of revenue for road work.
Ozark City Administrator Childers pointed out how it took three different entities coming together to fund construction of the new Riverside Bridge in Ozark, and that without that three-way agreement, there would have been no chance of any entity funding the project on its own.
Childers suggested that Christian County look for some ways to set money aside for major projects, like the bridge replacements, but that some funding still go out to cities based on the application and project scoring process.
"Right now, you're not putting anything back for bridges that is dedicated, so any amount of money that you're dedicating for bridges into an escrow fund or whatever it is would be more than what you're doing now," Childers said.
Childers commiserated with the Christian County Commission about stagnant and downward-trending sales tax revenue that comes from merchants in Ozark losing business.
"Online shopping is kicking everybody's rear. It's something that we're struggling with," Childers said.
A fourth option would be to dissolve the application for funding program completely.
Two more bridges
MoDOT closed two bridges in 2017 following a series of inspections conducted at the request of the Christian County Road and Bridge Department. The closures affected Green Bridge and Hawkins Bridge, which was built in 1915. The Missouri Department of Transportation closed it May 11, 2017 due to damage it sustained in a flooding event. The bridge underwent $12,000 in emergency repairs and reopened June 5. Hawkins Bridge is southwest of Nixa, and carries Seneca Road over the Finley.
A third Christian County Bridge is also subject to closure in the future.
Red Bridge carries Red Bridge Road over Bull Creek in southern Christian County to the north and east of Saddlebrooke. It was built in 1915, and is comprised of three 86-foot spans with approaches adding up to 255 feet in total length. The one-lane bridge was rehabilitated in 2005. The substructure has since undergone additional improvement and repair work. In 2017, the Red Bridge received a sufficiency score of 19.4 of a possible 100 points from the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Missouri bridges are inspected every two years.
How we got here
In 2012, Christian County changed its method of automatically sharing revenue from a 1/2-cent transportation sales tax with cities and special road districts based on miles of road, to a request-based method that requires entities to submit plans for their road projects for evaluation and scoring.
Consultants from Great River Engineering, a Springfield firm, evaluate the applications and make recommendations to the county commission for funding allocation based on the scoring system.
Lou Lapaglia was the presiding commissioner in 2012. His push to change how the sales tax revenue is distributed met resistance from cities and special road districts, but it ultimately passed by a 2-1 vote with then-Eastern District Commissioner Ray Weter joining Lapaglia and then-Western District Commissioner Bill Barnett dissenting.
Lapaglia felt that the move cleaned up sales tax policy first enacted by voters in 1997.
"Over the years the county has, at times, given over half of the total amount of the road and bridges and county operations taxes to the special road districts and cities using a handshake agreement to justify this action. A comment was made at the meeting about a “handshake” years ago. We cannot locate any minutes, notices or memos about any agreement to share the road tax and the general revenue tax," Lapaglia wrote in a guest column that ran in the Headliner News June 27, 2012.
Lapaglia called the establishment of intergovernmental agreements with cities a necessity, "that demonstrate how much money will be spent, scope and other aspects of a particular project."
Christian County later attained first-class county status under Missouri law in 2015.