Bridge, taxes and roads County meeting dominated by three topics

By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – What to do about the Chilson bridge over the Mickelson Trail near Edgemont, property taxes and roads dominated the Fall River County commissioners March 15 meeting.
Chilson Bridge
The county held a public hearing on the future of the Chilson Bridge within the commissioner’s meeting.
The bridge spans the George Mickelson Trail, about six miles northeast of Edgemont, on what was once U.S. Highway 18, before the newer, alternative route was built over Mathias Peak, east of Red Canyon and west of this old road.
Bridge inspections have revealed that the span is becoming more unsafe with each passing year. And it’s location, 46 feet above the Mickelson Trail, creates its own set of problems.
The county has been discussing the bridge, the 10 miles of road connected to it and what to do about both for the last several months. Earlier this year, the county hired Brosz Engineering’s Ross Eberle to investigate the county’s options with the bridge and the road, also to coordinate with federal and state officials involved, including the state Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) Division of Planning & Engineering Program Manager Laurie Schultz and Bridge Replacement Engineer Ron Bren.
Eberle shared his findings at the meeting.
No matter how he looked at options for the bridge – and he considered many – it would still cost about $1.2 million to replace the bridge, Eberle said.
To replace the bridge or construct an at-grade crossing above the bridge – what Eberle suggested might be the best options – the county could get 80 percent state and federal money for the project; the county’s share 20 percent. Schultz noted that any work done in 2018, when the bridge is scheduled to be replaced, would fall under state Bridge Improvement Grant (BIG) program.
Eberle reminded the 15 people gathered for the hearing, most of them landowners near the bridge, that the Chilson Bridge is not the only bridge that needs work: Of 36 county bridges, 12 are 70-plus years old and will need work. Some, he said, are holding up very well. However, there also are 2,000 smaller drainages, plus 500 miles of roadways to take care of.
Every year, Eberle said, inspectors come very close to closing Chilson Bridge. The 183-foot long iron truss bridge was built (or was a bridge relocated to that site) during the 1930s. It hasn’t been upgraded since about 1980, when “Jersey barriers” (modular concrete walls used to separate traffic lanes, were incorporated into the construction, to beef it up.
Lighter load limits were recently put on the bridge because bridge inspectors found a number of safety issues – including spawling concrete, delaminating structure metals, bridge girders coming out of the concrete that holds them and bowed support structures.
Eberle looked at numerous options for the bridge: replacing it in kind, making it a single steel span, beefing it up with concrete girders, replacing it with a box culvert and re-grading, and an at-grade crossing that would bypass the bridge altogether. Each option, he said, tallied up to more than $1 million.
The most recent potential solution – the at-grade crossing – was initially nixed by SDOT for funding, but when reviewed it qualified for state and federal monies, so the commissioners seemed to be leaning that direction. However, opening the hearing Commissioner Joe Falkenburg said he wanted to hear what the people most impacted by any decision would have to say about the bridge.
Two residents initially wanted the bridge replaced, or an at-grade crossing created. However, they changed their tune as the discussion wore on.
Bruce Murdock, the landowner whose property the road and bridge cross, agreed that the bridge is bad, that even a pickup hauling water can’t go across it, because this would exceed the weight limits. But he didn’t want to spend tax money fixing anything.
“Fall River County taxes are obscene,” Murdock said. “It used to take two calves to pay for the taxes, now it’s many more. We should analyze bridge and the road.”
“I’m the one most encumbered by this,” he continued. To consider what closing the road and bridge would mean, he and his wife drove the speed limit on alternate routes from Rocky Ford to Edgemont, and it only took a maximum of 2.5 minutes more travel time.
Mordock also called the 10 miles of road going into the bridge a “junk road.”
“Who is using the road and bridge?” Murdock wondered. “If it cost $1.2 million now, you’re also looking at maintenance down the road. You can defer this, just like I can on my ranch, and save some money now, but will come back to bite you. Roads will bite you. What’s the use of it? I’m looking at two roads going the same place.”

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Ed Harvery suggested that the county close the bridge, sell it for scrap metal.
Eberle said closing the road and removing the bridge would still cost about $100,000, with state and federal monies not likely available for this, although Schultz said she would check into this.
Harvey said the county could save about $140,000 if it scrapped the bridge: If the cost of replacing the bridge is $1.2 million, and the county’s share is 20 percent ($240,000), the county could remove the bridge for $100,000 and bank the $140,000.
“Then what are we to do, stay home?” said the husband and wife who live on Old Hwy. 18, and use the road and bridge as access into their home.
Another resident suggested using large steel culverts, like Gillette, Wyoming uses. Eberle said he looked into this, too and the cost would be more than $1 million due to the amount of earth work and grading required.
County Treasurer Kelli Rhoe also wanted the bridge closed for safety reasons.
Eberle also reminded the crowd that state and federal monies may not be available later.
When Commissioner Ann Abbott asked how many vehicles use the road and the bridge, County Highway Superintendent Randy Seiler said traffic counts showed about 100 cars daily. Murdock said during hunting season this increases into “a steady procession of road hunters,” also some “wildlife lookers” making a loop.
Commissioner Deb Russell said if the county closed the road and bridge, it could use money for other road projects like the Oral Road and roads around Oelrichs.
Jim Miller, another rancher, said the only time he really needs the road is to reach the north end of his property, to check his cattle and water. He usually uses a 4-wheeler, not a pickup truck, and could make arrangements to reach his north pasture with a neighbor if the road were closed.
When Falkenburg asked how many people wanted the bridge and road closed, a clear majority raised their hands. The at-grade crossing received only two votes. So the county ordered Seiler to close the road and post the appropriate signs.
Schultz noted that the bridge is listed on the Register of Historic Places, and a process would have to be followed to close it. Also, Falkenburg noted that signs warning motorists of a closed road would need to be installed.
Commissioner Joe Allen suggested postponing the final decision on this for the next county meeting to allow other voices to be heard.
Harvey agreed, noting that this would give landowners an opportunity to see how closing the bridge would impact them. “We can make a better decision then,” he said.
The commissioners agreed.
Assessments, taxes
Assessments and taxes are still a hot button issue. For example, Ryan Welsh came before the commissioners to question his 2016 taxes and his 2017 assessment values.
Welsh said he owns a two-bedroom home that he “fixed up” so it could be “lived in.” He didn’t make significant improvements to the home, he said, and no outbuildings or additions were added.
When he bought the home, a couple of years ago, his assessed value was $31,000. In 2016, his assessment jumped to $208,000, he said. His 2017 assessment – the most recent – is $88,000.

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“It’s the same property, but the numbers shouldn’t change like that,” he said. “When I moved here from Colorado, I had a $240,000 home, and paid $1,000 in taxes. I didn’t think Fall River County taxes could be this much.”
Welsh said he tried to abate last year’s taxes, but it didn’t happen.
County Director of Equalization Susie Simpkins agreed that his current assessment of $88,000 was “way more accurate” than previous assessments.
Simpkins agreed that Welsh did appeal his 2016 assessment year and tried to reverse the increase, but it didn’t fly, because he was told by other members of the county Equalization Office that it would do no good. Simpkins said she didn’t want to “open that door,” where conversations other members of her office might be questioned, because of the potential problems this could create. However, she would make an exception in Welsh’s case.
Falkenburg said the $88,000 assessment figure was the most reasonable, and on a motion by Allen and Russell, Welsh’s received an abatement of taxes for the difference between $208,000 and $88,000 for his property.
Simpkins also suggested abatements on Cold Brook properties due to the fire there, and sought guidance on how she should handle the railroad properties that have been sold back to the landowners from whom they were initially acquired, because this would mean a reclassification of property from non-agricultural land to agricultural land. The sales of the properties stretched across a five-month period, from November of 2015 through March of this year. These plots ranged in size from 40 acres to 200-plus acres.
The commissioners suggested individual appeals by individual landowners. Simpkins set the hearings on these appeals for April 19 and 21.
Roads
The county has been interested in trying an oil stabilizer on some county roads, to beef up crumbling pavement and for other applications.
Several times commissioners have asked to try this product, but Seiler has balked, not believing it was of value.
When Falkenburg suggested applying the product to a mile of roadway again, to see how this might work, Seiler talked about following up on a Meade County effort with the product, to see how its holding up, and deferred to Eberle.
Eberle said his experience with the product was that it can rehabilitate old asphalt, but it has to be done right, and the product’s efficiency has a lot to do with traffic volumes.
Russell suggested trying it on the Buffalo Gap Road or the Oral Road, roads she characterized as roads that will “make your false teeth loose” as they are now. Seiler pointed to potholes that might spell trouble for the product. Eberle said it’s all about how the materials stabilize, because the oil product is a “sandier” product, and that Meade County had to find other materials to fill in on roads where they tried the product. The cost for a mile of product would be about $25,000.
Seiler said he would report on this at the next meeting.
In other business:
Ed Harvey made the observation, now that Custer’s STAR academy was closing, that maybe this facility could be used as a joint Fall River and Custer counties judicial facility with a jail and offices.
Russell expressed concerns about the flow of storm water in Oral, and worried about more homes getting water in the basement. Emergency Manager Frank Maynard said drainage ditches would need to be cleaned out so water could flow naturally off the land.
Maynard also talked about a county-wide clean up, and getting an area landfill to take white goods (refrigerators, stoves and other items) and other large items. Maynard believed a grant might be available for this, just like last year.

Fall River County Herald

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