The current flooding of Yankton County roads and bridges has forced a number of accelerated decisions on the county’s crumbling infrastructure.
The Yankton County Commission has dealt for years with the lack of adequate funding to meet growing needs around the county. Now, the prolonged James River overflow and other flooding have left many roads and bridges under water or as compromised safety hazards.
This week’s County Commission agenda reflected the flooding situation. The items included Stone Church bridge and road in northwest Yankton County, Fleeg’s Bridge east of Yankton and a detailed look at deteriorating bridges around the county.
Commissioner Cheri Loest said county officials and residents are facing a number of tough decisions all at once.
"That goes to the larger picture. I hate to say it, but this catastrophe is an opportunity in the way we look at how we do our bridges and roads, and where we prioritize," she said.
"We’re having this discussion not just on bridges but on roads. We have paved roads that are just crumbling. At this point, we are facing where we’re going to put the few dollars that we have."
She brought up an unpopular option — raising taxes to fund repair and replacement projects.
"Politicians aren’t supposed to say that in front of the public, but it’s a very real discussion we need to have," she said.
"And if we do that, we’ve got to make sure we put the money where you (taxpayers) want it put. We can’t be selfish about it."
Yankton County officials are starting the discussion with bridges because of the immediate public safety need, Loest said. County officials can’t rely on disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she said.
"In reality, we may get nothing from FEMA. And if we do, it may be five years down the road (before we receive it or see the results)," she said. "We have to look at today and where we put more dollars. Increasing taxes has to be part of that equation, but it’s a very difficult decision."
Commissioner Don Kettering pointed to the financial realities, even when focusing on just four James River bridges. "I would like to fix all four of them, but there isn’t any money to do one," he said.
The county can look at a number of options but may be forced to raise taxes, or at least put it on the table for consideration, Kettering said.
County Commission Chairman Dan Klimisch said he opposes raising taxes for repairs if at all possible.
"I’m of the position that we haven’t exhausted all of our options yet," he told the Press & Dakotan. "I would rather prioritize the roads and probably turn some of the roads back to gravel."
At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners heard a passionate call for assistance from residents facing long detours because of the Stone Church Road flooding and lowered weight limits on Stone Church Bridge.
The problems aren’t limited to Yankton County. A number of Menno residents, who live in Hutchinson County, rely on the Stone Church road and bridge.
After hearing their concerns, the Yankton County Commissioner started moving toward a consensus on prioritizing the Stone Church Bridge.
Commissioners Klimisch and Joe Healy met last Sunday with 32 residents of the Stone Church area, particularly Odessa Township. Many of the same people attended Tuesday’s commission meeting.
"I would really like to prioritize Stone Church Road. To me, after talking those individuals, that (bridge) has to be at the top," Klimisch said. "We need to let the (county residents) need to know that, by no means, are we letting Fleeg’s slip, but Stone Church has to be the priority now."
Healy agreed with making Stone Church the top choice for immediate action, taking into account bridge conditions and available alternate routes. He doesn’t favor closing bridges, if at all possible.
"I think there is a way we can have Fleeg’s Bridge to the legal load (limit) and prolong that road while we replace Stone Church Bridge," he said.
However, Kettering warned of a backlash from those who use Fleeg’s Bridge.
"I can say there are as many or more farmers on both sides of the (James) river that use Fleeg’s Bridge as the Stone Church Bridge. If you use that argument, we’ve got to fix them both," he said. "(But) I’m not against Stone Church Bridge. If you’re all in favor of it, I’ll go along with it."
During the meeting, residents expressed frustration with long detours that have hampered farmers and area businesses while creating possible hazards for first responders.
Jackie Vaith, who lives on Stone Church Road, spoke on behalf of the Menno ambulance crew. The load limits may force the crew into long detours that could prove fatal to patients, she said.
"We need to get to the other side of the bridge. If there was an ambulance call tonight, it could take us a half-hour, at least, to get around to any people we serve on that side of the (James) river," she said.
"If that was your mom or dad having a heart attack, do you want the 8 minutes (of normal response time)? Or are you OK with a 30-minute response and then another 30 minutes to the hospital?"
Menno Mayor Darrell Mehlhaff said his residents have been harmed in a number of ways by the lower load limits on the Stone Church Bridge, about seven miles south of the community.
"Part of the Menno Fire District is on the other side (of the bridge) and part of the ambulance district. We also have part of the school district on that side of the river," he said. "If you cut off the access in any way, it hampers … mutual aid from Lesterville coming our way to help us and from us helping Lesterville in any fire or disaster."
In addition, aspects of everyday life are affected, Mehlhaff said.
"It also hampers commerce. Yankton can benefit from any commerce that way and so can the city of Menno," he said. "Even our school bus can’t cross that bridge with children on it because of the load limits."
Menno Superintendent Charlene Crosswait picked up on the latter theme. The Stone Church Bridge has a load limit of 22,000 pounds, she said. A bus weighs 19,800 pounds, and a load of 27 students on one route — assuming an average weight of 100 pounds per student — pushed the load to 22,500 pounds and too much for the bridge.
The flooding has also created longer bus rides for students, Crosswait said. Because of detours and slower drives on gravel or deteriorating roads, some students are riding 90 minutes on their morning and afternoon routes.
"That’s a long time," she said.
She inquired about the possibility of a grant to cover bridge expenses.
"We would be willing to help on the grant," she said. "The kids are our number one responsibility, and their families as well."
Kent Metter, who lives in Odessa Township near the Stone Church Bridge, noted fire departments that cannot use the bridge because their firetrucks weight 30,000-35,000 pounds. In addition, many farmers, truckers and agribusinesses cannot use the bridge because their trucks and equipment exceed the posted weight limit, even when driven empty.
Stone Church area residents Jodie Kludt and Brian Goehring raised those points. In addition, they noted that farmers no longer can easily work land on both sides of the James River.
They also raised a criticism, saying Yankton County hasn’t made the financial commitment to the Stone Church and other northern area infrastructure. As a result, more heavy traffic is diverted to the roads and bridges of Hutchinson and Bon Homme counties.
"Yankton County seems to be expecting Hutchinson and Bon Homme counties to bear the burden of excessive wear and tear on their roads and bridges," Kludt said.
"That’s irresponsible. Is that being a good steward? Is that how we treat our neighbors, to have them take care of our problems? It seems, if we’re going to be paying taxes for this county, this county should be taking care of things with its taxes and not put it off on Hutchinson and Bon Homme counties."
Goehring agreed. "Hutchinson County has spent a lot of dollars on that road coming (south from Menno). Obviously, they’re looking at it as a long-term investment. We’re asking for you to look at it was an investment for commerce and the good of Yankton County," he said.
Yankton County will need outside assistance, such as the state’s Bridge Improvement Grant (BIG), to tackle so many large projects at once, Klimisch said.
"We can’t do this thing by ourselves," he said. "If we can get an 80/20 split with the state, it could be done. But if it’s a 60/40 split, it’s not going to happen."
Kettering spoke of the need to get the entire county on the same page when it comes to prioritizing projects.
"We have to sell this project to the people in the southern part because, when you get down to it, the votes are in the southern parts of the county," he said. "We have to convince them that this is the thing to do and the best use of our taxes today."
The commissioners will prioritize roads and bridges, revisiting the topic at their next meeting April 16.
"With prioritization, we’ll try to get a plan together in the next week and move forward," Klimisch said.
Loest returned to the idea of prioritizing projects and setting aside funds. But in the end, county residents must weigh in and show their trust in elected officials, she added.
"This is going to be a big conversation that’s not welcome by anyone," she said. "But it is an area where we can have a conversation."
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter