ADRIAN, Minn. - Transportation. It’s a buzz word at every level of government as America’s road system takes a beating in the name of commerce. From the federal, state, county and township level, the challenge is the same - a lack of money to improve roads that weren’t designed and built for today’s needs.
Officials from several southwest Nobles County, Minn., townships have started to vocalize their struggles as farms become more concentrated and feedlots get larger, but the tax revenue those livestock facilities generate often falls far short of the costs for road maintenance.
Westside Township Supervisor Steve Ashby said the problem has steadily worsened in the past five years as more farmers are permitted to construct livestock facilities on roads with a 5-ton weight limit.
“I don’t agree with (the county) giving them permits to put these on gravel roads - they can’t handle these big semis, these big manure tanks, big spreaders and stuff like that,” said Ashby, of rural Adrian.
When roads are damaged by overweight vehicles, townships have to do more grading and add more gravel. In Westside Township, Ashby said there’s two to three times more money spent on gravel and repairs on roads where livestock facilities are located than on roads where there aren’t.
Ashby spoke of two instances in particular, one in which a livestock producer built a hog facility on a minimum maintenance road and then complained to the township for two years for the road to be improved.
In 2016, the township spent $5,000 to $7,000 to build up the road. The farmer then attempted to haul out a load of hogs in less-than-ideal road conditions and buried the truck on the road.
“We had to get the contractor to pull that out of there and rebuild the road again - it cost another couple thousand dollars,” Ashby said. The township had to pay the bill.
In another instance, Ashby said a cattle feeder hauled manure with overweight side dump trucks down a gravel road, causing ruts so deep the township road grader couldn’t get down the road to smooth it out.
“I had to get a contractor to haul crushed cement in there,” Ashby said.
‘Diddly for tax’
Commissioner Gene Metz raised the issue at a recent meeting of the Nobles County Planning Commission after hearing from officials in townships where road maintenance for livestock facilities has been a growing concern.
“A livestock facility does not return diddly for tax to the township,” Metz told the commission. He said any confinement or monoslope cattle barns with underground manure pits are taxed only on the building, not on the slats and underground manure pits.
“I’ve got a 4,000-head unit that I pay $68 in township tax a year (for); another is $38,” Metz said. “The townships aren’t getting enough money back to maintain the roads.”
Metz said he did some research on livestock facilities in Nobles County and discovered the largest feedlot is assessed $700 per year in township tax, with many hog confinement barns generating under $100 in township tax per year.
“Quite a bit of the value of the building doesn’t generate tax - it’s close to half of it,” Metz said. “(Livestock producers) are really not paying the share of what the road costs are.”
There’s no clear-cut way to solve the issue, as taxes are based on property values and the state dictates some of the rules, Metz said.
Nobles County Environmental Services Director Wayne Smith said in some Minnesota counties, townships have developed road agreements with livestock producers. During a Feb. 22 Planning Commission meeting, he said the county could place conditions on feedlots, such as requiring producers and townships to develop a road maintenance agreement that would spell out routes for feed, livestock and manure hauling.
Other options Smith posed included increasing the feedlot license fee based on animal units, with the additional revenue used for township and county roads; or having livestock producers pay a bond to the township. If a road is damaged, the township then has money to fix it. The interest on the bond, he said, could go back to the producer.
Metz said the solution may be as simple as livestock producers and township officials creating a gentleman’s agreement - discussing what the township is willing to put into roads and what is expected of the landowner.
“I’d say 95 percent of the time people take care of the situation - they’re willing to fix the road up themselves or pay for some extra gravel,” Metz said.
Smith said the size of some of today’s livestock operations in Nobles County require feed and livestock trucks to traverse township roads daily - and sometimes during not ideal conditions.
“When you’ve got feed and livestock coming every day, it doesn’t afford us the opportunity we used to have,” Smith said. “Back in the ’90s, you could work around the weather - delay the feed truck or delay marketing them. People don’t have that opportunity anymore with larger feedlots. They have market contracts to meet and they need good roads.”
In Nobles County, Smith said livestock feedlots are permitted in areas away from residents - the farther the better.
“The farther you go from residents, the more likely you are to end up at the end of a township road that hasn’t been maintained, hasn’t been built up,” he said. “What used to be a dead-end, minimum maintenance road now has a substantial feedlot on it.”
“We aren’t putting those new homes up out there and driving up costs,” he added. “Rather, we’re putting up livestock facilities that demand more tax dollars than they’re producing.”
Smith said this winter, in particular, has been difficult for livestock producers. The milder temperatures have created soft roads earlier than usual.
“If global warming proves to be true, we’re going to have milder winters and we’re going to have more damage to the roads,” Smith said. “It’s something the township and the county needs to work on.”
‘Something’s gotta be done’
There seems to be a lack of easy answers to address taxes on livestock facilities and the shortage of revenue they generate for township road maintenance.
Ashby said livestock producers should either have to pay more taxes to help take care of the roads, or the county is going to have to quit putting livestock facilities on gravel roads.
“I know that ain’t right, but I don’t know what else to say,” Ashby said. “If they’re going to haul these heavy loads, they’re going to have to do it when the ground’s frozen in the winter or when the roads are real dry in August. They can’t be doing this stuff when the roads are posted.”
Ashby said while there are no signs posting weight limits on Westside Township roads, landowners know the weight limits. Even if there was signage, it falls on the township to enforce it. That would require weighing loads and citing individuals - something townships don’t have the resources to do. Instead, they try to talk to the residents who are causing the road damage.
“A lot of times they don’t listen to us anyway,” Ashby said. “Something’s gotta be done - I know that.”
To counteract the increased costs of road maintenance, Westside Township residents will vote on a proposed levy increase of $10,000 during their township meeting Tuesday. The township has no wind turbines that generate additional tax dollars for road maintenance.
“We’ve got to keep raising our levy every year to pay for gravel or road repairs,” Ashby said. “People don’t like that when they have to pay more tax, you know, and it’s not fair to the people that don’t have the confinements.”