October 24, 2014

Bridge repairs & unfunded mandates among top issues for county leaders

County leaders from across the state will gather in Kearney this week for the annual legislative conference of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

Executive director Larry Dix says several issues are on the agenda, including the zoning debate that’s underway in the state.

“There’s a number of reports that are somewhat concerning in the number of head of livestock that we have,” Dix says. “There’s been some recent discussion about some dairies looking at the state of Nebraska. We just want to have a conversation about our zoning regulations. Are they adequate, are they what they should be?”

Dix says there will be a presentation about the effects the EPA’s proposed Waters of the U.S. Rule would have on county road maintenance. He says the association has also compiled its platform and legislative priorities.

“We’ve been working very hard on unfunded mandates and looking for additional funding for bridge repairs,” Dix says. “Unfunded mandates is one of those where both of the candidates that are running for governor have openly talked about it and said we’ve got to do something as it relates to property tax.”

An engineering consultant for several counties estimates the cost to replace or upgrade all substandard bridges in Nebraska could exceed $2 billion.

Dix says they’ll also discuss fiscal notes and the counties’ role in making sure the state understands the impacts of state policy on local government. The conference will be held Thursday in Kearney.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton

 

Supreme Court to decide dispute over Republican River usage (AUDIO)

Attorney General Jon Bruning

Attorney General Jon Bruning

A dispute between Nebraska and Kansas over use of water flowing from the Republican River is now in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.

Attorney General Jon Bruning is confident the Supreme Court will validate the decision reached by a special master it appointed, who rejected Kansas’ claim Nebraska owed it $80 million and reduced it to $5.5 million.

Still.

“There’s no certainties in this,” Bruning tells Nebraska Radio Network in a telephone interview shortly after oral arguments before the court. “The justices, they ask questions on both sides of the issue. At one point, you’re certain Justice A or B is on your side and then they ask another question and you think, well, they’re on the other side.”

Kansas has reduced the compensation it claims Nebraska owes in briefs filed with the court. Kansas now asks that Nebraska pay it $25 million for the over-use of the Republican River by Nebraska farmers and ranchers in 2005 and 2006.

Bruning says he holds out hope that not only will the court reject the $25 million dollars requested, but will even lop off $1.8 million from the $5.5 million suggested by the special master. That was added as a penalty to the settlement.

A second issue is at play.

Nebraska wants to change the accounting method used to allocate water from the Republican River. Kansas has argued that it never would have agreed to the 2002 settlement with Nebraska if that method were used.

Bruning is less confident Nebraska will win on that issue.

A compact Congress approved in 1943 allocates 49% of the Republican River to Nebraska; 40% to Kansas and 11%.

Bruning points out water use is vital both for irrigation of crops and watering of livestock; in other words, vital to Nebraska’s number one industry.

“It’s certainly high-stakes stuff and we’re going to defend our producers who have done so much to modify their usage and reduce their usage of water.”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]

Farmers – mark you calendar

Nebraska farmers have a few deadlines coming up regarding two new programs included in the Farm Bill.   The first date that farmers can sign up for Agricultural Risk Coverage or the Price Loss Coverage programs is November 17th. FSA Administrator Val Dolcini says farmers have until March 31st to make a selection.

Dolcini says they wanted to give farmers a good amount of time so they can do their homework to see what works best for their operation.

Farmers are also required to update their base acres and planting history information at their local FSA office. The update deadline if February 27, 2015.

Farmers can log on to fsa.usda.gov for more information.

County leaders struggle to keep bridges passable as harvest begins

Corn combineMany Nebraska counties face the dilemma of having to repair or replace dozens of crumbling rural bridges, especially as farmers ramp up traffic during the harvest.

The Nebraska Legislature’s Transportation Committee is hearing testimony on an interim study of the problem.

Saunders County Highway Superintendent Steve Mika says his county has more than 400 bridges and more than 100 of them had to be closed following new bridge inspection rules issued in 2008.

“Average cost of these bridges are $300-350,000 a piece,” Mika says. “Most of these bridges in the past were being replaced or repaired, the majority of it was by local funds. We also have several bridges that are below the sufficiency rating are in place to be replaced.”

Mika says the county has slowly been able to replace bridges, but still has 19 of them closed on major county roads, and about a dozen on minimum-maintenance roads. In some cases, he says bridges can be replaced with large box culverts.

“Getting around these roads for harvest or planting, that’s a real challenge in trying to keep these bridges open,” Mika says. “Even the ones that are open are low tonnage and need to be replaced or upgraded in order to accommodate the farm equipment.”

Larry Dix, executive director for the Nebraska Association of County Officials, says counties are doing as much as they can to keep bridges and roads open, at a time when public sentiment against higher property taxes is growing.

Dix says Saunders County leaders, in particular, are in a tough spot. If Saunders County officials said there are 10 bridges that need to be replaced, each costing $300,000, and if they voted to increase the tax rate 10 cents, “we would immediately have recall petitions out,” Dix says.

Jay Rempe, a vice president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, says there’s no easy answer. He said having a good infrastructure is critical for the state’s agriculture industry. Rempe says the Farm Bureau continues to hear from members about bridges being closed and the difficulty they pose.

“Those that have been closed, those that the weight limits have been reduced, farm equipment is getting bigger, wider, heavier,” Rempe says. “More and more trucks are running on those roads. Farmers have invested in trucks. We have a lot more grain moving because of our ethanol industry and others by trucks and those county bridges come more and more into play.”

One engineering consultant for several counties estimates the cost to replace or upgrade all substandard bridges in Nebraska could exceed $2-billion.

By Doug Kennedy, KWBE, Beatrice

 

 

Nation’s ag boss blasts rail lines for not anticipating bumper harvest

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

The nation’s top agriculture official is raising alarms about the looming shortage of rail cars to carry grain from Midwestern fields to market.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says railroad officials should have anticipated the coming bumper harvest and been ready with sufficient cars for delivery.

Vilsack says, “The reality is that we’re behind, the rail industry is behind, and they need to catch up.”

Two of the biggest railroads claim they’re investing in more staff and equipment, but Vilsack says, the moves aren’t coming quickly enough as farmers are already beginning to harvest crops.

“The National Surface Transportation Board has received comments from USDA in a letter that was recently sent on behalf of farmers encouraging them to continue putting pressure on the Burlington Northern and Canadian Pacific rail lines to ensure they have adequate number of cars, adequate number of locomotives, more personnel and continue to improve track.”

Vilsack says railroads should be penalized for poor service and they shouldn’t be allowed to increase their freight rates when there’s a backlog and bumper crops.

“There may be some opportunities for the National Surface Transportation Board to change their system so that rail companies are not rewarded for substandard service,” Vilsack says. “It doesn’t seem to me that they ought to be able to charge extra when there’s a backlog and a large harvest. They ought to be anticipating that.”

Vilsack says another possible solution includes the use of arbitration.

Vilsack says, “We’ve also suggested that there might be additional ways in which decisions concerning whether or not they’ve stepped up adequately can be put into a mediation or arbitration system that might be less time-consuming and less expensive for producers.”

Legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Senate to address the problem, while lawmakers from South Dakota and Minnesota are calling on the USDA to conduct an economic analysis of rail service challenges facing agricultural shippers.

Crude oil production is bounding in the U-S. Five years ago, rail cars hauled 11,000 loads of crude oil, while last year, it was 400,000 rail car loads of crude.

Supporters of the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline say if the project were greenlighted, it could be carrying huge quantities of crude, freeing up more trains to haul grain.