As the impact of winter’s cold and snow on the roads begins to appear in the form of potholes that seem to reproduce faster than rabbits, highway departments in every municipality in the region are gearing up for their busiest roadway repair seasons.
All municipalities have to deal with many of the same issues related to the vagaries of weather and the geology of the region that requires specialized maintenance strategies. But all things are not equal from one town to the next when it comes to funding, and a quick comparison of Mansfield and Ellicottville illustrates the difficulties faced by underfunded versus well-funded departments.
Everyone knows that Ellicottville is a relatively wealthy town in the region thanks to its robust tourism economy and higher-than-average property assessments. Ellicottville’s 2014 budget for maintaining its 46 miles of roads — including employees and benefits, snow removal, repaving, shoulder maintenance, mowing and all other activities — totals approximately $1.12 million, or $26,100 per mile.
Ellicottville will pay for this primarily with sales tax revenues (about $970,000), along with roughly $150,000 from state and other non-tax revenue. Ellicottville property taxes are not used to fund the highway budget.
By comparison, Mansfield — with 54 miles of roads to maintain — has a 2014 highway budget of just under $686,000 (plus $66,000 in insurance settlement revenue that is earmarked for a replacement vehicle). This comes to approximately $12,700 per mile.
The state will provide about $130,000 for highway improvements and sales tax revenue will cover about $156,000. The balance of nearly $400,000 will come from property taxes.
When it costs $13,000–$14,000 to seal and chip a mile of road, and upwards of $80,000 to rebuild and repave a mile, the difference is marked.
While these budget numbers don’t tell the whole story — there are many differences between the municipalities that make it difficult to compare them equitably — they do help to focus in on some of the challenges.
According to John Burrell, Ellicottville’s town supervisor, “Ellicottville has had policies and procedures in place for many years that have strengthened the highway department and have gotten us to where we are today. We’ve been fortunate to have had enough money to work with, and we’ve been strategic about how we’ve spent it.”
He cites, for example, Ellicottville’s ability to designate summer and winter trucks. This extends the lifespan of vehicles to 21 or 22 years.
“Towns like Mansfield and most others in the region don’t have the luxury of doing that, so vehicles need to be replaced far more frequently,” Burrell said. At a cost of as much as $250,000 for large vehicles, that makes a huge difference.
Mansfield’s Highway Superintendent, Brad Hurley, tries not to think about what other municipalities have or don’t have.
“We do the best job we can,” he said.
Burrell agrees, weighing in, “Mansfield does a really good job with what they have.”
For Hurley, the two biggest challenges facing Mansfield are the rising costs of materials and the October 2012 fire that destroyed Mansfield’s highway garage and all of its contents, including seven vehicles.
While the garage has been rebuilt and all but one vehicle has been replaced, he said, “It’s going to take 5-6 years to recover from the fire. It seems like every day we discover we’re missing a tool or piece of equipment we used to have. It will take 4-5 years just to replace everything. But we borrow when we can and we’ll find a way.”
Regarding rising costs, Hurley points to the cost of materials, fuel and transport.
“Almost everything we need is petroleum-based, but prices have tripled in just the last 6-7 years. A ton of sand, for example, costs $4, but it costs $4.50 to get it here. Those kinds of increases take their toll.”
Hurley, who was elected to the superintendent post in 2013 and served as acting superintendent for six months before that, plans to implement some long-range, strategic goals for his department that he hopes can be achieved in 10 or fewer years.
“I’d like to get us into a rotation of sealing 10 miles of roads per year. Currently, we can only afford to do 2-3 miles, weather permitting. We’re also spending too much on temporary patching, which is partially a result of not sealing the roads often enough. The problems are compounded. I want to get to a point where we’re doing long-term fixes with long-term benefits,” said Hurley.
Of course, those goals are dependent on more funding.
Mansfield Supervisor Bob Keis has said on numerous occasions that his goal is to increase funding for the highway department, but at the same time he and the Mansfield Town Board will not consider increasing property tax rates. Keis is expecting that new development in Mansfield — specifically at HoliMont’s WestMont Ridge — will generate new tax revenues that can be used to significantly boost the highway budget over the next several years.
Many challenges remain, however, as state highway funding to municipalities is not keeping pace with inflation and other factors continue to crop up, such as ice storms, flooding, downed trees down, extended bouts of rain or other weather-related issues, that are in no one’s control and divert time and money away from road repair.
Right now, said Hurley, we’re just hoping for a mild spring and summer. Meanwhile, he and his dedicated staff will do their best to stay one step ahead.