$28M available for townships needing new culverts, but there's a catch. Find out what.

Elisa Sand
Aberdeen News
This culvert in Aberdeen Township is one of seven culverts in the township that could be replaced with funding available from the state through a new program.

Townships across South Dakota that need to replace larger culverts can tap $28 million in state money, but there's a catch.

They must have one of two extra levies in place.

In the past two years, the state legislature has set aside the money for township culvert replacements. It's intended to help with the expense, but not all townships meet the criteria.

According to the legislation authorizing the funding, townships must have an opt out or a secondary road levy of at least 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value in place before they can access the culvert money.

Using levy information provided by auditor's offices in Brown, Codington and Minnehaha counties, only 23 of the combined 85 townships in the three counties meet that criteria.

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Eligible townships can use the money to replace culverts that are more than 15.9 square feet or more than 4 and a half feet in diameter. That state money would be helpful, especially considering how much flooding there was across eastern South Dakota this spring.

Brown County Highway Superintendent Dirk Rogers said a single culvert has to be at least 4 and a half feet wide. Multiple culverts in one location that total at least 15.9 square feet also quality.

Sixty townships in the three counties have culverts large enough to be replaced, but fewer than half of them have imposed one of the extra assessments.

First batch of culvert money approved in 2021

In 2021, state lawmakers set aside $3 million that was divvied out to South Dakota's 66 counties and used to survey townships to determine where the culverts that would work within the program are. That same bill included another $3 million for culvert replacement and set the program's criteria.

The survey money has already been distributed and spent, but counties are set to receive their shares of the $3 million for culvert replacement work before Aug. 1. Minnehaha County will get $170,651, Codington will get $79,381 and Brown $52,920.

Another $25 million for culverts approved during '22 legislative session

During this year's legislative session, another $25 million was set aside for township culvert replacement. From that, $8.3 million will be distributed annually to counties in fiscal years 2023, 2024 and 2025.

That means Brown County will get $147,002 in each of those years, Codington County $220,504 and Minnehaha County $474,030.

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A culvert 5 feet wide and 60 feet long would cost about $12,600, Rogers said, citing an estimate he received in July. And that doesn't include installation. While there are shorter culverts, he said, 60-footers are needed for most township roads.

The culvert cost of $210 per foot is more than double bids Brown County received last year, which were for $93 a foot, Rogers said.

He said counties have the option to assist townships with culvert replacement, and Brown County has historically covered that cost to keep water flowing. But the new program will change that practice, Rogers said. 

Townships also need five-year infrastructure plan

Townships wanting to use the culvert money must also submit a five-year infrastructure plan to the county by Aug. 31.

The next step is to submit an application for funding, which is due Oct. 31 to the county highway superintendent. According to the legislation, county commissioners are then tasked with dispersing the money to townships with the first awards made by Jan. 15, 2023.

Terry Sletten, executive director for the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships, said that while the culvert money will be distributed over three years, there is a four-year reversion option. That means if not all of the money is spent by then, there are four more years to do so.

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"These funds are crucial" for townships that need culvert replacements that cost from $30,000 to $100,000, she said.

But Sletten is well aware not all townships have one of the necessary assessments in place. And they are out of luck, unless the program's parameters are changed. Those changes, she said, would have to be made by the legislature.

What townships qualify in Brown County?

According to a statewide culvert survey published by the South Dakota Department of Transportation, there are a total of 171 culverts in Brown County that meet the program's size requirements. But only 15 townships have the necessary assessments in place, according to tax levy data provided by the Brown County Auditor's Office. Throughout those 15 townships, there are 122 culverts that qualify for funding.

The survey also lists the condition of the culverts as good, fair, poor or critical. Brown County has nine culverts in critical condition, but only five of those nine are in townships that qualify for the replacement money.

The qualifying Brown County townships include Palmyra, Liberty, Greenfield, Franklyn, Riverside, Aberdeen, Bath, Groton, Highland, Warner, East Rondell, West Hansen, East Hansen, Garden Prairie and Bates.

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New Hope Township just misses out as it has a road levy of 48.5 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. It has three culverts that would otherwise qualify, one of which is in critical condition, per the state survey.

Secondary road levies are in place for just a year, so the townships that have them in place can change annually. 

Only two townships qualify in Codington County

In Codington County, only two of 17 townships have one of the necessary levies in place. They are Graceland and Sheridan.

Countywide, there are 180 culverts that meet the size requirements, according to the survey, but state money will only be available for 13 of them. None of the 180 are in critical condition.

Henry and Pelican townships have opt outs in place that aren't being used. That begs the question: Do townships qualify just by having an opt out, or does it have to be in use?

Drew Dennert

State Rep. Drew Dennert, R-Aberdeen, who this year is running for Brown County Commission, said it's a topic that he could see argued either way. Brown County Commissioner Doug Fjeldheim, who also sits on the Westport Township Board, said that's a question he'd like answered.

A message to the South Dakota Department of Revenue asking the question was not returned.

Local governments, including townships, can "opt-out" of state-imposed limits on the increased amount of property taxes they can collect from one year to the next. Generally, those opt outs are in place for a set number of years. But opt outs can also be put to a public vote, and it can be difficult to convince taxpayers to fork over extra money.

Five townships meet program criteria in Minnehaha County

In Minnehaha County, there are 292 culverts in 18 of the county's 24 townships that are large enough to qualify for funding. But only five townships have an opt out or the extra road levy in place. They are Hartford, Burk, Palisade, Mapleton and Valley Springs. State money could be tapped to replace 63 culverts in those townships.

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Four other townships have passed opt outs, but aren't currently using the extra levy. They are Logan, Edison, Brandon and Red Rock townships.

None of the culverts in Minnehaha County are in critical condition, per the survey.