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Aurora County to discuss opt-out for roads

PLANKINTON -- Aurora County commissioners will discuss whether to pursue an opt-out to pay for delayed chip seal projects on county roads today.

"Opt-out" is the term commonly used when local governments decide to exceed a state-imposed cap on year-to-year increases in property-tax collections. An opt-out can be referred to a public vote.

Aurora County is two years behind in completing most chip-seal projects because of lack of funds, Highway Superintendent Larry Falk said. This year, snow removal costs and flooding -- which prompted necessary repairs to roads -- consumed funding for some projects, he said.

If the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program was not paying for a 16-mile project on County Road 11 north and south of White Lake this month, the county would have no money for it, Falk said. He did not have immediate access to an amount for the project, given the county's Tuesday observance of the July 4 holiday.

"We're about down to the point in our regular budget that we can't do a major chip seal," he said.

John Steichen, county board chairman from White Lake, said a commissioner brought up the idea at the last meeting. County Auditor Susan Urban was directed to compile potential tax increases for optouts ranging from $200,000 to $400,000 to give commissioners an idea of the cost to taxpayers, he said.

Steichen said the county used to chip seal one-fourth of county roads annually. Not even one-sixth or oneseventh of county roads get a new surface now, Falk said.

"Without an opt-out, I don't know if we'll ever be able to do them unless we come up with some more money somewhere," he said.

The county already voted this year to supplement the highway department budget with $75,000 from the general fund for snow removal and fuel costs associated with flooding last spring, Steichen said.

Falk noted that construction costs have tripled or perhaps quadrupled per mile, compared to four or five years ago.

"The price of oil went up, and that's your main ingredient," he said.

One project -- an eight-mile stretch of County Road 56 west of Stickney -- was moved to the 2011 budget because the money wasn't available, Falk said.

Two stretches of roads -- County Road 56 east of Stickney and County Road 10 near Storla -- are in poor shape and need the most work, Falk said. But they also are being delayed because of financial constraints.

Falk said he will present preliminary 2011 budget figures to the commissioners today. He did not have a number available Monday because of the county's July 4 holiday.

"If they think it is barebones and it still isn't going to work, they're going to have to figure out how to get more money," he said.

County leaders also are seeking a new highway superintendent since Falk submitted his resignation with a request to be reinstated as a county highway department employee.

Falk submitted his resignation at the June 22 meeting, taking effect on Aug. 1, Steichen said.

Falk, who has been highway superintendent for four years, cited age as a factor for wanting to return to a lower position for a year or two. He has worked for the department for 30 years.

The county is advertising for a replacement, with a July 16 deadline for applications, according to an advertisement in the South Dakota Mail.