Township officials meet to help restart boards

Burt County Road Foreman Dale Huffman, center, goes over maps of county and township roads with Logan Township chairman David Freese, left, and new Riverside township board member Graig McElmuray during Wednesday’s joint meeting of the county’s township boards. The meeting, held at Craig Fire Hall, was the first of what is expected to be a series of meetings where current active township board members guide members of the county’s five newly reactivated township boards on their duties and responsibilities.

So you start a new project—something you personally have never done before. Where do you go for advice?

Usually the best place is somebody you trust who’s already doing the same thing.

That’s where officers of the five newly restarted townships in Burt County find themselves right now. Officers from Arizona, Riverside, Pershing, Decatur and Craig townships were among 16 township officers at a joint meeting in Craig last Wednesday.

“We’re all new, we have no idea what to do,” new Craig Township board member Don Wallace told the group. “And we have no idea how it’ll work out with the county, but this meeting is a start to try and figure some of it out.”

The county board started a push last summer to restart the five townships that had become inactive over the years. Each township mostly is responsible for maintaining the roads in the township that aren’t maintained by the county. The five that had become dormant did so because dwindling populations and exploding property valuations had made the tax burden needed to pay for road maintenance to much to bear.

When Summit and Bell Creek voters turned down a tax request last May, it opened the possibility that more than half of the 12 townships in the county would be inactive. Were that to happen, the county board is required to disband them all and the board itself would have to be restructured. County board chairman Dave Schold said Wednesday night that each township had its own choice to make and the townships that stayed did so to maintain local control over a local issue—specifically, road maintenance.

“All of that is in the past,” he said. “We have to go on from here.”

In the past, the county hadn’t helped fund township operations although its had the authority to do so for roughly 20 years.

That will change starting Jan. 1, 2020, when each township can ask for up to eight cents of tax levy, but they have to file a budget with the county this summer to get it. The county board’s plan is to set a tax levy to fund township road maintenance and work out a mechanism so that a fair amount is sought and paid by each township.

The biggest question for the group was how do you develop a budget when you don’t know how much you might spend, you don’t know what anything costs and you don’t know how much revenue you’ll receive.

Township budgets will be approved in the fall but the townships won’t start collecting any tax revenue until January of 2020. Still, there will be expenses prior to then. For example, township officers have to be bonded. Representatives said Craig Township already is out $700 in bonding costs.

Representatives said the county may have to step in and make some money available to the new townships ahead of schedule, either as loans or grants, in order to help pay some of the start-up costs.

New Riverside Township board member Graig McElmuray said the new officers will be accountable for every cent of tax revenue they receive even though they don’t yet know how much it will be or when they might get it. He asked if it would be possible to hold another similar meeting where the active townships can bring historic financial data to share with the new boards.

“The active townships would know how many hours are spent on roads,” he told the group. “They’ve got a much better idea on who to pay and what to pay them than the county does.”

The townships also need to go back to the county’s maps to determine which roads they’ll be responsible for. For example, Bell Creek Township maintains 45.5 miles of gravel roads and another 3.3 miles of minimum maintenance roads on a budget of $92,800. The county maintains six miles of gravel roads and nine miles of paved roads in the township.

Craig Township has a total of 86 miles of gravel roads, all under the county’s care, but once the township is back in business, some of those roads will be turned back to the township, as will the five miles of minimum maintenance roads in the township. The 10 miles of paved roads will stay with the county.

Dist. 4 Supervisor Paul Richards said each township will have to figure out for itself how much gravel to apply to each road.

Richards said the county board will do its work in solving its issues while the townships work out theirs and eventually both sides will come together for a common solution, “but it’s a slow-turning wheel.”

He praised the townships for being willing to get out to an early start.

Both camps think the first steps are well taken.

“This turned out way better than I thought,” Schold said. “(Restarting the townships) is something that has to be done and this is a good start.”