REENFIELD — A record-setting $2 million will be spent on maintaining rural roads in Hancock County this year, and local officials are still hoping for a tax increase on restaurant bills to continue that level of funding in the years to come.
The Hancock County Council this month decided to up the ante on money earmarked for road improvements. They’re taking $500,000 out of a fund that local residents who dine out pay into in order to put more money on rural street repairs and maintenance.
The food and beverage fund is generated from a tax on restaurant bills, and it’s that same tax that the council is hoping to raise to generate even more money for road repairs.
If the state Legislature gives Hancock County special approval to raise the tax, it would require people to pay an extra penny for every $1 spent dining out. It’s an increase that will be hardly noticeable to diners, yet it is expected to generate about $800,000 more a year to be spent on road maintenance.
So will there ever be enough money to maintain rural roads? And should local residents be asked to pay more?
“There’s competing needs. There’s how much people want to pay in tax, which is legitimate, … but of course I want to see the roads dealt with,” said Gary Pool, engineer for the Hancock County Highway Department. “My friends and family use these roads, too. Obviously, I’d like to pave them all — that’d be great. But let’s be realistic — we’re never going to pave all the roads.”
Hancock County has nearly 700 miles of roads, and the $2 million earmarked for maintenance this year will pave 11 miles and chip-seal 44 more.
That’s more than what the county highway department has been able to accomplish in recent years: In 2014, eight miles of roads were paved and 32 sealed at $1.3 million. The $2 million set aside this year is the most the county has spent on road maintenance in at least 10 years.
But it’s only right that roads should be the focus of county government: It’s the No. 1 complaint local elected officials hear from constituents, commissioner Marc Huber said.
In recent years, the high cost of materials and slowing revenues from state road taxes have caused roads to be put on the back burner; some have even been turned to gravel after pavement broke down beyond repair.
“I think everyone would like to see more actual blacktop put down, but that’s a huge expense,” Huber said. “If we can maintain them and try to extend the life of them a bit … with $2 million, we can get every mile touched once every 10 years. I know that doesn’t sound overly exciting, but compared to where we’ve been, that’s pretty exciting.”
Huber said $2 million is a good annual target for road maintenance, and Pool agreed. It’s what the county highway department can spend efficiently by doing maintenance work in-house, Pool said; if any more was earmarked for roadwork, the department would have to outsource services.
The state of the county’s roads are just fair, Pool said. Using a 1-10 rating scale, Pool has rated the vast majority of roads — 441 miles — a rating of 6 to 7, which is fair to good. He’d like to see more move up to a 7 status and focus on the 100 miles rated at 5 or lower.
“I’m excited to see the roads improve. There’s no doubt I can spend every nickle on improving roads,” Pool said. “Now, I’ve got to figure out how I can get it all done, because that’s pushing the limits on what we can do with the highway department in-house.”
And then there’s the question on whether to raise the food and beverage tax. Currently, anyone who dines out in Hancock County pays an 8 percent tax: 7 percent of that is sales tax, and 1 percent is the food and beverage tax.
Half of the food and beverage tax raises money from all counties surrounding Indianapolis to pay for Lucas Oil Stadium; the other half goes into Hancock County coffers, which county officials have been using as a slush fund.
Local officials say if the tax was increased by 1 percentage point — for a total tax on food at 9 percent — it would raise $800,000 a year for roads.
That way, Councilman Jim Shelby said, the current food and beverage fund would continue to have a healthy cash flow.
Shelby said the fund has been built up through the years, enough so that there’s money there to dip into it now for road maintenance.
But that can’t happen all the time: The current tax generates between $400,000 and $500,000 a year, so it would be quickly depleted if the fund was turned to annually for road revenue.
That’s why the council is asking the state Legislature to give Hancock County the authority to raise the tax. Two weeks ago, Shelby talked to a House committee on the issue, alongside representatives from Hendricks and Parke counties.
Now, it’s a waiting game to see if the bill will make it through the complicated legislative-approval process.
Meanwhile, Councilman John Jessup said he’d like Hancock County to at least have the chance to raise the tax. He hasn’t heard feedback from the community on the idea, but if there are any complainers, he said they would probably be the same people that also complain about the state of the roads.
“The food and beverage tax is kind of like a luxury tax,” he said. “If you’re poor and destitute and can’t afford to be taxed any more, you’re probably not out eating at O’Charleys or whatever. The only people who are paying this tax are the people who are visiting our county, using our services or the people who are going out to eat. … If you don’t want to pay the additional tax, don’t eat out.”
But Huber said he thinks county officials ought to slow down. Even if the state Legislature allows locals to raise the food and beverage tax, Huber said there are a lot of needs in county government to be addressed.
Local officials should decide how much the county highway department can pave efficiently every year in-house and also weigh in on priorities for maintaining government buildings, he said.
“Let’s all work together and put this plan together,” Huber said. “We might need to do something for building maintenance, or if the county highway (department) can only use $2 million, we don’t need more.”