An old, dilapidated bridge holds up part of Baseline Road south of New Underwood; it is one of several old bridges that need work in Pennington County.

Journal file

In 2015, the Legislature approved the Bridge Improvement Grant program, which is turning out to be a big deal for Meade, Butte, Lawrence, Jackson, Hughes, Beadle, Brown, Brookings, Codington and Yankton counties to name a few.

In the past two years, the program — known as BIG — has allocated $9 million annually for bridge-preservation projects. Meade County, for example, received three grants totaling a little over $1 million this year. The state Department of Transportation expects to increase the allocation to $13 million in 2019.

Nowhere on the list of grant recipients, however, is Pennington County, which lacks the needed wheel tax to be eligible.

The county commission did approve a wheel tax in 2015 after a long and sometimes bitter public debate. It charged from $3 to $5 per tire per year, depending upon the vehicle's weight. Among opponents were residents who owned a number of vehicles and non-resident RV owners who have their mail sent to businesses like Americas Mailbox, which allows them to vote in local elections even though they spend little time here.

Anti-tax activists, however, gathered the 3,221 signatures necessary to put it on the ballot and a special election that cost around $62,000 was held.

As expected, turnout was low. Only 15.3 percent of registered voter participated in the January election. Of that sliver of population, 59.6 percent — or 6,022 voters — opposed the wheel tax, while 4,086 supported it, meaning just 9 percent of registered voters killed a small tax that certainly will cost the county millions of dollars unless addressed again.

It is important to remember wheel tax revenue is earmarked for local county road and bridge projects. The money the state collects for BIG comes from sales tax charged for gasoline and an increase in vehicle excise taxes and license plate fees paid annually.

In other words, money collected in Pennington County helps pay for bridge repairs in nearly every other county in the state. At the same time, Pennington County struggles to maintain its 139 bridges, including 46 built from 1972-76.

After a minority of overall registered voters rejected the wheel tax, a leading opponent hailed the results as a victory for taxpayers although it is hard to understand how sending our tax dollars to other counties amounts to a win unless the only purpose is to win.

But as the West Dakota Water Development District board has demonstrated over and over again in the stream-gauge funding debate, it is perfectly acceptable for local government bodies to reconsider revenue issues.

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In the best interest of all county residents and especially for those who live, work and own businesses in rural Pennington County, the county commission needs to revisit the wheel tax.

Yes, it likely will be a bruising debate as those who oppose any taxes — even a user's tax earmarked for a specific and critical need — will mobilize for the sake of their principles.

But nobody really wins if county roads and bridges continue to fall into disrepair. Eventually, the county will need more money for them and without wheel tax revenue and BIG grants to fund those projects commissioners will eventually look at raising property taxes, which can't be challenged in a special election — and nobody wants that.

It's time for Pennington County to get into the game before it falls any further behind counties that understand the value of BIG when it comes to meeting costly long-term needs.

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