MUSTANG RIDGE, Texas (KXAN) - A battle over who looks after aging country roads is heating up at the expense of Travis County taxpayers.
Leaders in the small city of Mustang Ridge, a short drive south of Austin, refuse to maintain certain roads within their own city limits. But county staff say these same degrading roads are putting motorists at risk. What’s more, county officials say the costs of emergency road repairs are being pulled from the wrong pockets.
Heading a few yards off Highway 183 in Mustang Ridge and onto one of the many side roads shows large stretches of pavement in disrepair.
“Oh yeah, it's gotten worse over time," said Ralph Wagner, who was recently hit with an $1,100 repair bill for his four year-old Dodge pick-up. "It's worse than what it has been in a long time."
“They redid the shocks,” the retiree said. “Then they redid the whole alignment, front and back. (The Dodge) only has but 60,000 miles on it and it shouldn't need that type of repairs already."
Risk of Accidents
Travis County's roads director said the poorly tended byways also mean there's a growing risk for bad accidents.
“These roads are narrow, without shoulders,” said Don Ward, Travis County’s Division Director of Roads. “They need maintaining. They need signage, they need striping, they need mowing.”
Just a mile up one road, outside city of Mustang Ridge limits and yards past a 'County Maintenance Begins' sign, it was clear to see the asphalt was more even and road striping was visible since the overgrown vegetation had recently been cut back.
The Mayor of Mustang Ridge says he's concerned about the condition of his city's roads too.
“They're going downhill, to be honest,” said Joe Flores who was elected in 2009.
But he won't touch about seven miles of asphalt in his city which incorporated in 1985. The mayor says when the city annexes private land parcels, it only takes property up to the fence lines, not the roads themselves.
“When I became the mayor, I was told they were county roads," he said. "As far as I know, they are county roads.”
A Travis County-based land use attorney says that's not the way the law works.
“It's pretty cut and dried. (With) incorporation, you get control of your roads. But with control over your roads, comes responsibility for them,” said Roger Borgelt. “It's sort of like (saying) to a teenager, 'Yeah you can drive the car, but you also have to start making the payments.’”
But paying for good roads is the problem in Mustang Ridge.
“I couldn't afford it," Flores said, "not with the budget that's coming in."
This year, city leaders agreed to a budget amendment that increased the roads budget from $5,000 to just under $50,000. That increase brought road spending to 5.9 percent of Mustang Ridge’s 2012-2013 expenditures of $841,883.
The year before, total road and road sign spending totaled closer to 0.8 percent, or $7,000, of total expenditures. The city's largest expense is manning the police department, which costs $185,000.
This year, most of the increased $50,000 roads budget went to repaving several short subdivision lanes that Flores said were badly pitted. To do any more work would put the city in a tight spot, he said.
“There's one thing I don't want to do is increase property taxes,” Flores said.
The drought conditions make the 'Mustang Ridge roller coaster ride' worse, where a safe speed in some places is about 20 mph.
But the mayor can seemingly afford to do next to nothing because the county will still step in and make 'emergency' road repairs as they're needed.
“It might be a big pothole, it might be a stop sign down,” Ward said. He said any bills are sent to Mustang Ridge.
An interlocal agreement with the county is one long-term solution the town is looking into. Travis County already has interlocal agreements with 11 other small, incorporated cities. County road crews look after maintenance for the simple cost of materials and labor plus a 10 percent administrative fee. Ward calls it a ‘pretty good deal.’
The county sent Mustang Ridge a tentative interlocal agreement in Nov. 2012, but Flores wants a much better deal, arguing he's already paying for his own police service.
Costs and benefits of policing Mustang Ridge
Amended city budget documents show the Mustang Ridge Police Department cost $105,705 in fiscal 2012-2013 to operate aside from the above noted employee costs.
Officers writing traffic offense tickets brought in most of the $119,198 in revenue collected as fines. The total was $327,978, but the documents show a large portion ($208,780) was sent to the state under an existing arrangement.
Traffic tickets aside, local drivers like Ralph Wagner said they are forced to continue to use roads that don't make the grade.
“It's not cheap these days,” Wagner said, noting his wife’s new SUV is also taking a beating every time she ventures out on the asphalt.
Wes Ritchie, the attorney for Mustang Ridge, told KXAN he's seeking an Attorney General's opinion for who should cover the cost of roads that bump up against annexed properties. For that, he will need an endorsement from a sitting member of the Texas legislature.
If it's determined the city should pay, it could mean a tax hike, a bond issue, or even a decision to 'hand back' parts of the city to Travis County.
The neighboring town of Creedmore is considering a similar resolution since it too deems any major roads that run through its city limits be the responsibility of the county.
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