County engineer grateful for any gas tax increase

Governor proposes 28 cent hike, House lawmakers prefer 10.7 cents over three years

LISBON — While the state legislature and Gov. Mike DeWine debate how much to raise the state gasoline tax, county Engineer Bert Dawson appreciates any help he can get.

“It’s obvious to me more money is needed,” he said.

DeWine wants to raise the state gas tax from the current 28 cents per gallon to 46 cents come July 1, when the next two-year state budgets goes into effect. The gas tax would be adjusted annually going forward to reflect yearly changes in the consumer price index. The governor has called his proposal a “minimalist approach” needed to maintain the state’s roads and fund new highway projects.

Meanwhile, the Ohio House countered by passing a measure last week raising the tax on gas by 10.7 cents a gallon, which would be phased in over three years and end there. The House proposal would also raise the tax on diesel fuel from 28 cents to 48 cents, with that increase phased in over three years.

The federal tax on gas is 18.4 cents per gallon.

DeWine’s proposed gas tax hike is expected to generate an additional $1.2 billion the first year, with the money split between the Ohio Department of Transportation and local governments, with cities, villages, townships and counties receiving 40 percent of the increase.

The House’s tax hike, which now goes to the Ohio Senate for consideration, would raise $872 million annually. It also alters the funding distribution, with local governments getting 45 percent of the additional money. Municipalities and townships would also be allowed to increase vehicle registration fees by an extra $5.

Under the governor’s plan, the county would receive a combined $4.1 million in additional funds for road and bridge maintenance, with the engineer’s office receiving a $1.77 million. The remaining $2.34 million would be spread among cities, villages and townships in the county, according to a news release from the ODOT.

The amount cities and villages receive is based on the number of motor vehicles registrations, while the townships’ share is based on vehicle registrations and miles of road.

Dawson’s budget relies heavily on the gas tax, one of two major sources of funding for the engineer’s office, with the other being a portion of license plate fees. In 2018, the engineer’s office gas tax revenue totaled $2.4 million, with license plates generating $3.4 million. The engineer’s office also received another $241,000 in miscellaneous income, bringing the grand total to $6.13 million.

While that may seem like enough to maintain the 190 miles of county roads and 360 bridges, Dawson pointed out the amount being generated by the gas tax and license plate fees has remained largely flat for more than a decade. Because of high gas prices, people are driving less and vehicles are more fuel-efficient, which drives down gas consumption.

“Our income has basically been the same for the past 14 years … All I’m saying is it would undoubtedly help. No one can run their household with the same income they got 14 years ago,” Dawson said.

The engineer’s office spent $6.4 million last year, forcing Dawson to use $300,000 from his cash balance to subsidize operations and prevent him from ending the year with a deficit.

In addition to maintaining county roads and bridges and plowing snow, Dawson also has a chip/seal resurfacing program for villages and townships. Under the program, participating villages and township purchase the material, with the engineer’s office doing the work for free.

Dawson would prefer to resurface as many roads as possible with asphalt, but asphalt is five times the cost of chip/seal. An additional $1.7 million would enable him to resurface another 10 miles of road using asphalt, which would be a huge jump. “If they cut it in half it will take it down to four-five miles,” he said of the House’s proposed increase.

Dawson said cities, villages and townships would stand to gain the most in some respects since they have lost funding over the past decade when the state legislature began reducing state Local Government Fund allocations to communities.