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Photos of the week

Chunks of ice break a pier on a bridge along 164th Avenue crossing Box Elder Creek east of New Underwood.

Pennington County Commissioner Gary Drewes signaled Tuesday his intent to put a wheel tax back on the ballot for a second referendum vote.

By instituting the tax, Pennington County would join more than 50 other counties that are eligible to apply for and receive state grant money earmarked for bridge repairs. The collapse of a bridge near New Underwood in March was said by Drewes to illustrate the need for participation in the grant program.

"We need to create a wheel tax for Pennington County," he said during Tuesday's county commissioner's meeting. "We are paying into these funds that we can't get back out at this point."

The Bridge Improvement Grant program, or BIG, has doled out an estimated $40 million to counties since state lawmakers approved its creation in 2015. But the program requires that counties have a wheel tax in place in order to even apply for funding.

Pennington County in 2015 proposed taxing residents $3, $4 or $5 per tire depending on the size of their vehicle, but voters defeated the measure in a special referendum that saw only 15 percent turnout.

Members of the county highway department contend that there isn't enough money in their annual $12 million budget to make repairs that 118 of the county's 128 bridges require. County civil engineer Bill Welk put the total cost of those repairs at $11.5 million.

The department is able to repair at least one bridge each construction season, Welk said. Those bridges have an average age of 48 years, he said, and most have a lifespan of only 50 years.

"We're going to have a lot of bridges that are going to need a lot of work," Welk said at the meeting. 

Commissioners Deb Hadcock, Ron Rossknecht and Lloyd LaCroix all appeared to support another run at the wheel tax. Drewes said after the meeting he planned to meet with state officials and work with the highway department members and commission administrators in order to develop a proposal.

Commissioner Mark DiSanto, however, questioned the wisdom in raising an issue that voters previously rejected and said he would only support a wheel tax if it were offset by the lowering of property taxes.

Members of Citizens for Liberty, which pushed for the last proposal to be on the ballot, spoke out against the new wheel tax at the meeting.

Drewes said after the meeting he hoped to put the proposal up for referendum in the 2020 general election as opposed to a special election.

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