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The Marion County Board of Supervisors had the same difficult conversation in their meeting on Wednesday morning that others across the state have had in recent days: If the Legislature doesn’t come up with the money to fix hundreds of closed bridges, how will we?
Close to 500 county-owned bridges across the state remain closed, and many counties, like Marion, cannot afford the necessary repairs to reopen them.
As legislative leaders negotiate behind closed doors to determine how or if to offer financial relief to these counties, county officials cannot wait, facing a tight deadline to finalize their budgets for next fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.
But as the number of closed bridges in the state could double this year, the foremost options the cash-strapped counties are left to consider will stick the problem directly to taxpayers: Raise property taxes and borrow money.
“Our goal is to not raise property taxes, of course, but I don’t think that’s going to be something we can get away from this year,” said Doug Rogers, a supervisor in Jasper County, where 10 bridges are closed. “I wouldn’t rule out the fact of doing a bond issue to repair these bridges, either, but we’re not sure yet what we’re going to do. I do know that we don’t have the funding right now to repair all the bridge problems we’ve got.”
“We’ve figuratively talked about a bond issue on our bridges,” said Terry Broome, a supervisor in Marion County, where 11 bridges are closed. “We’ve got another inspection coming up no later than December that will probably double the number of closures. We’re out of options.”
“We’re still seeking funding,” said Preston Billings, a supervisor in Bolivar County, where 17 bridges are closed. “We found some money in-house to get some of our bridges open, but some are still closed. We’re getting ready to start budget sessions and we’ll be discussing all options.”
“I don’t think we could add enough property taxes to reopen what we’ve got,” said Jackie Whittington, a supervisor in Amite County, where 22 bridges are closed. “We’re hoping there will be some (state money) allotted to rebuild some of these bridges, whether it’s a fuel tax or whatever. But at this point, I really don’t know what the solution is.”
The bridge crisis exists after years of delayed maintenance at the county level, state lawmakers’ inability to pass a comprehensive infrastructure funding package and unresolved political turf wars. All of this came to a head on April 10 when Gov. Phil Bryant ordered the state transportation department to close nearly 100 bridges around the state.
Bryant’s declaration was made in the wake of federal government inspection mandates that were developed in 2017 after the Federal Highway Administration determined that hundreds of the state’s timber-pile bridges were unsafe for travel and had been improperly inspected for years.
The scrambling among government officials isn’t limited to just the local level. The bridge crisis has inspired talks of a special legislative session in which lawmakers could flow additional revenue to counties for bridge repairs.
Bryant in late July suggested the probability of a mid-August special session to find new revenue for counties to use for their crumbling roads and bridges. But weeks-long negotiations between legislative leaders, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, about such a proposal have not yet panned out. As of Friday afternoon, no special session had been called.
In efforts to sway the thinking of legislative leaders, boards of supervisors across the state this month signed the same resolution asking the Legislature to divert a portion of the state’s internet sales tax collections – recently allowed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision – to counties for infrastructure improvements.
But as the governor delays calling a potential special session and county budget hearings begin later this month, supervisors across the state will give serious consideration to tax increases or taking on more bond debt.
“I think most counties know that they have to do something,” said Derrick Surrette, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors. “They can’t just sit on their hands. There’s not a lot of state or federal assistance at this point. Whether the Legislature does anything or not, the fact of the matter is that life goes on and they’ve got to take care of their bridges.”