MONROE - Faced with declining state revenues, the Monroe County Road Commission has asked the county's townships to consider putting road millages on upcoming ballots.
"We're asking all the 15 townships," said Ralph Lange, the commission's head. "The financial situation of road commissions in Michigan is extremely bad."
The commissions rely on the state's gas and weight tax, which does not vary with the price of fuel, Mr. Lange said. "Even if the value of gas goes up, our [revenue] goes down if people don't buy as much gas."
And people are doing just that, he said.
"The price of gas spiking has caused a reduction," he said, adding that the commission's $25 million budget has dipped by $1 million because of that alone. "People have conserved, and that substantially reduced the amount to the road commission. Add to that, everything we use, like asphalt, is petroleum-related. The lifeblood of the commission is oil."
The increase in the cost of petroleum-based products has given the commission's budget another hefty smack, accounting for another million in the Monroe County department's budget.
"We didn't have enough money in the first place," Mr. Lange said glumly. "There's no new federal money coming, and the state budget - they can barely balance that. The county contributes a little money to the road commission."
Hence the fix the commission finds itself in.
"We cannot levy any kind of tax ourselves," Mr. Lange said. "It can only [come from] a township."
A couple of townships, Summerfield and Whiteford, already have road millages, said Nancy Tienvieri, a commission employee. "Those, we don't expect to make the change," she said. "The best possible outcome is that the other 13 townships decide to put one mill on" an upcoming ballot.
So the commission sent letters to the townships, asking what they think. Responses were expected early this week, and Mr. Lange plans to evaluate them in the next couple of weeks.
The idea to ask the townships for help came from the Better Roads Committee, an independent group of residents formed about a year ago to assess the commission's performance and figure out ways to fund road construction. The harsh winters and subsoil of Monroe County ensure that roads don't last long, said Ms. Tienvieri, who is also the liaison to the Better Roads Committee.
"The terrain doesn't drain," she said, adding that water is a road's worst enemy. Once asphalt cracks from the freezing and thawing so common here in the winter months, it undermines the road.
"If water gets in the road bed, when heavy equipment drives over it, there's no stability," Ms. Tienvieri said. That leads to those big ruts that jolt the sturdiest vehicles.
Banked roads, those built with an arc to shed water, can help. But they're also expensive, and "nobody wants to put that much money into it."