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County road projects for this year won't be deferred

WILLMAR -- Budget reserves will be used to pay for higher-than-expected construction costs of county road projects this year.

During a special meeting Thursday morning, the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners agreed to use the entire undesignated road and bridge reserve fund of $2.3 million, rather than delay two or three projects, including the final 1½-inch layer of bituminous on Willmar Avenue, which is also called County Road 23.

"We're not in the red, but we're close," said Public Works Director Gary Danielson. "There will be nothing left."

The commissioners may consider increasing the tax levy to replenish the empty reserve fund. The other option would be to delay projects scheduled for 2007 until a later time.

Higher-than-anticipated prices for oil and asphalt bumped up the total price for the 2006 projects, said Danielson. When it became evident that the current budget couldn't handle the extra cost, the commissioners considered delaying projects this year.

Besides the $323,000 cost for Willmar Avenue, the board considered delaying until next year a $1,275,000 milling and resurfacing project on County Road 8 and a $200,000 project on County Road 27.

Several other projects slated this year were not considered for postponement. They include work on the east end of County Road 10 that will cost the county $3.8 million (and $2.2 million in federal funds) and the west end of County Road 10, including County Road 9, that will cost the county $2.2 million (with $1.1 million in federal funds). The county is also spending $1,164,576 on a new vehicle maintenance and storage facility.

Delaying the three projects would have preserved the fund balance, but the projects would still be there next year, said Danielson. "Spending the reserves -- it's what they're there for."

"I have a hard time spending down all the reserves," said Chairman Dean Shuck. But he said the cost of construction won't likely decrease much in the future and improvements need to be made to meet the needs of the growing communities in the county.

County Administrator Wayne Thompson said the county's bond rating could be negatively affected by depleting the reserves in the road and bridge fund.

While not saying the county should increase the levy to pay back the fund, Thompson said the county has had a single-digit levy every year for at least the last five years while many other counties have had double-digit levies.

"I hate to see us pull down the reserves," said Commissioner Richard Larson, who said the county could look at increasing the levy.

Commissioner Richard Falk said the option of delaying projects next year should also be considered.

Falk questioned the number of tar roads throughout the county, including more sparsely populated rural areas.

Commissioner Harlan Madsen said many of those roads get heavy agricultural use and need to be improved.

Larson questioned if the county should consider replacing some tar roads with a gravel surface to reduce cost. He said that's what South Dakota and North Dakota are doing.

"Laugh today," said Larson to some of the commissioners who had a light-hearted response to his suggestion. "But we should take a hard look at this in the future."

Kandiyohi County has been busy with road projects.

A county-by-county comparison shows Kandiyohi County completed 25 road projects from 2001 through 2005, using 421,000 tons of gravel. That's two to five times higher than neighboring counties, according to a state study.

To help keep pace with the county's busy work schedule in 2006, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is "lending" one of its engineers to the county for the rest of the year to serve as project manager.

Jim Christiansen said now that the state Highway 23 project is done, the workload at the MnDOT office in Willmar is a little slower and he had time to assist the county, which will reimburse the state for Christiansen's services. "The county asked if they could borrow me," he said.

Christiansen said it's not unusual for MnDOT to provide assistance to cities and counties.

In other action Thursday, the commissioners:

- Heard from Loren Engelby, the county's new ag and drainage inspector, on wetland restoration and drainage ditch projects.

- Heard a report from Dave Fritz of the county the Highway Department about construction of the new vehicle maintenance and storage building for the department. An active natural gas main was discovered during excavation and will be moved.

- Heard an update on the improvements made to County Park 1.

- Were informed that county officials will meet with residents of George Lake on June 17 and with Diamond Lake residents on July 8 to discuss the possibility of providing sanitary sewer service connections to the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District's system.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750