SIDNEY — An unusually harsh winter has left several county road commissions in Michigan scrambling for funds to continue snow-removal and salting efforts to battle the elements and keep roads safe and passable for commuters.
In response to that cry for help, the Michigan Senate approved a mid-year supplemental appropriations bill in a 32-6 vote Thursday, which plans to provide $100 million in general funds to aid with potholes and budgetary issues.
Senate Bill 608, sponsored by Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, would effectively “make, supplement, and adjust appropriations for various state departments and agencies, capital outlay, and the judicial branch for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2014.”
More than $260 million, coming from a current-year budget surplus, would be distributed to various departments, including $73 million in Medicaid makeup money and $114 million for the Michigan Department of Community Health.
The $100 million to be distributed to road commissions will be split between the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) county road commissions and cities and villages.
Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, voted in favor of the legislation, and spoke on the subject during Monday’s Legislative Update meeting at Montcalm Community College (MCC).
“This winter season has just about decimated every county’s budget for road clearing, salt, you name it,” she said. “Our goal in the senate was to allocate some money specifically to help out county road commissions.”
According to Emmons, of the $100 million, $39.1 million will be distributed to MDOT, $39.1 million to county road commissions, and the remaining $21.8 million for cities, villages and townships.
A portion of that funding is expected to come from the state’s Road and Risks Reserve Fund.
“We understand that we’re going to see some sights on roads as the spring thaw develops that are going to jar every one of us,” she said. “This is just going to be one of those seasons that we are going to remember.”
Emmons said the bill will now go before the House of Representatives, where the bill could potentially change in dramatic fashion.
“It’s really very important that we keep this road funding piece of legislation in there,” she said. “We’re just hoping they don’t touch the road funding, but anything is on the table.”
Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, said while it is likely there will be changes made to the bill, he doesn’t believe any significant changes will occur toward the emergency road funding.
“As far as I can tell, we as legislators do like the bill,” he said. “I think we’ll get it passed. I think we’ll at least leave that part of the budget alone.”
Outman said he was wary of Gov. Snyder’s initial statement that all funding would go through MDOT.
However, if the money is distributed evenly as is represented in the current pending legislation, Outman said he would view the bill favorably.
“There was some consternation that the governor was proposing to give all the money to the Michigan Department of Transportation and allow them to distribute it, but I really think the emphasis needs to be more on the local road commissions,” he said.
Montcalm County Road Commission Superintendent-Manager Mark Christensen was in attendance and stressed the importance of providing the one-time emergency funding to the various road commissions.
“The winter has been a huge challenge, not only financially, but physically, for the road commission to do what it has done,” he said. “That $100 million will just about make us whole for the costs that were overrun in the winter. Don’t expect a lot of major fixes this summer as we move forward. This will just get us back to a level playing field.”
Christensen said of the funds being distributed, he would like to see them allocated toward the costs of winter maintenance for the road commission.
Adding on to the theme of the abnormally harsh winter, Emmons said legislators are also seeking revenue to be included for propane and fuel oil.
“The price is escalating every day because of the severe winter,” she said. “We’re seeing price hikes that cover everything, fuel oil, even wood. Anything that is transportable will see some relief for lower income folks.”
This winter has also affected schools with a high number of snow days that have reached into the double digits for most Michigan school districts.
“Currently the law reads that you are forgiven up to six snow days, but we are at that point and beyond, and we still have another month to go,” she said.
Emmons said there hasn’t been any legislation yet drafted on the subject, but there has been much discussion between legislators and school superintendents.
“The general belief is that complete days are the best educationally sound process for our students,” she said. “Certainly when you miss this number of days it’s going to impacts children’s’ education. You may see an option to determine if districts want to do days, minutes or a hybrid.”