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SHERIDAN — In a process initiated by Sheridan County earlier this spring, the city and county continue to take steps toward resolution of a variety of issues including road annexations, law enforcement, municipal and circuit court responsibilities, funding for the juvenile justice program, vehicle identification number inspections and more.
A solution on VIN inspections has been reached with the city and county agreeing that the sheriff’s office will do all VIN inspections rather than splitting them between the sheriff and police departments.
The two entities are now working through how to improve the process and timing of road annexations, an issue brought forth by county commissioners and staff because it was believed the city was not annexing roads it had said it would in past agreements.
A first step
At the June 2 City Council meeting, councilors passed Resolution 21-14 on the consent agenda. That resolution re-opened a memorandum of understanding passed by the city and county Dec. 4, 2007, with the intent of amending the MOU to resolve the road annexation issue.
“I hope that the city’s resolution really initiates more of a direct action on all of our parts, and prioritizes this. City and county will get together again and talk about the appropriate process,” City Public Works Director Nic Bateson said. “I will suggest that we hire a consultant to help us streamline this as quickly as we can. We’ll see if the county would be willing to participate in that, or if they’re not willing to do that if just staff needs to grind it out and get it done. I think all parties agree that we want to come up with some kind of solution quickly.”
County Administrative Director Renee Obermueller said on one hand, the county is glad the city is making an effort to begin resolving the issue of road annexations.
On the other hand, the county would have liked the city to talk through its ideas with the county in greater depth before passing a resolution to amend the 2007 MOU, which is not necessarily how the county thinks the problem should be solved. Because the 2007 MOU applies to new development in the one-mile “donut” of county land surrounding the city but not existing roads, the county had thought a new MOU to address annexation and switching ownership on existing roads may have been a better solution.
“We would have preferred if this is the direction it’s going, that there would have been something in draft form we could have looked at ahead of time and maybe commented on it,” Obermueller said. “That doesn’t preclude us from amending this resolution, though. We are going in the right direction.”
Bateson said the city is open to a variety of solutions and that the resolution was primarily passed to open up official negotiations.
The issue of road annexation and transfer of ownership dates back nearly a decade. In September 2006, the city and county passed an MOU regarding a variety of issues of jurisdiction in the one-mile donut area of joint city/county land use.
That MOU was replaced by a second MOU in December 2007 that said new development in the area surrounding city limits should be completed to city standards since it will likely be incorporated into city limits over time.
Paragraph six of the MOU says, “The City shall annex and maintain any County roads adjacent to or within a subdivision in the one-mile area, which is also contiguous to or leading to the corporate limits of the City.” It also states that the city and county will endeavor to aid in the transition but does not lay out any specific details on the process.
“Prior to the MOU, it was confusing to developers and not well-defined for the city and county on how that area gets developed. The original intention was, ‘What do we do in this donut area, this kind of transition area from city to county as it develops? What design standards should developers use? Who should they go talk to initially, the city or county?’ We don’t want to tell people to go back and forth; we want to collaborate much more efficiently with our developers,” Bateson said.
Bateson said the short section on roads in the MOU has since been found to be lacking. It gives general direction, but there’s a lot of circumstances that go along with considering to take ownership of a road. Miscommunication between the city and county over the years has also led to frustration.
According to an email from Mayor Dave Kinskey to Bateson dated Jan. 22, 2014, a plan for road annexations was laid out in a resolution passed by the city but never made it into the final MOU passed jointly by city and county.
“I’ve always had it in my head that the transfer process provided that no road would be transferred until there was an agreed financial plan between city and county to bring the road up to standards. Upon review I find that that was in the resolution that was adopted but, somehow became excised from the final memorandum of understanding,” Kinskey wrote in the email. “For obvious reasons you will understand why that has been a source of miscommunication.”
Resolution 26-07 was passed by City Council in May 2007. It outlines a process for annexing county roads not associated with new development. However, a similar resolution was never passed by the county, so the only binding agreement is the 2007 MOU.
Neither Bateson nor Obermueller knew why language regarding shared costs of upgrading county roads to city standards was eliminated from the 2007 MOU.
From 2007 to 2010, the city did work on annexing several roads requested for annexation by the county. Bateson said it was important to not overlook the fact that 8.23 miles of 11.35 total miles requested have been annexed, a success rate of 73 percent. The county’s list of roads it wants annexed is longer than the city’s, so the exact amount of successful annexation differs between the entities.
In 2010, when the economy tanked, annexations also dropped, Obermueller said.
In that year, the city hired a consultant out of Billings to move the annexation issue along. A consultant with Sanderson Stewart, out of Billings, Montana, completed a scope of work that outlined how it would ease the annexation process, but no further meetings were held or work completed on the study. Bateson said the city has requested that the county help share in the $9,600 cost of the scope of work, but to date the county has not done so. It is not clear if the county was asked to help with the cost prior to the work being done.
Since 2010, the city and county have worked through a few annexations, but the process has been murky and frustrating.
The resolution passed by City Council on June 2 states that the city wants to add five or more processes to the 2007 MOU that will outline how city annexation of county roads will be done. These include:
• How to jointly fund or prepare a financial plan for road improvements to meet urban standards,
• How the public entity desiring annexation will engage adjacent landowners for a plan of annexation,
• Obtaining necessary legal rights of way,
• Must be consistent with the Sheridan Joint Planning Area Land Use Plan,
• Degree of continuity and connectivity necessary for consideration of city annexation.
Obermueller said the county agrees with several of the additions. She said the county is happy to engage county landowners adjacent to roads to be annexed because they often worry that annexing the road will also annex their land, which is not the case. Property owners must approach the city if they want their land annexed into the city.
Obermueller said the county also agrees that the Joint Planning Area Land Use Plan needs to be followed, and that the city and county need to work together to survey roads to be annexed so that rights of way are properly documented.
The two areas that need further discussion are the joint funding to bring roads to city standards and a definition of how much city land needs to be contiguous to county roads for them to be annexed.
“One of the repeating concerns the city has is the joint funding on the improvements. And that’s where we have a hang-up,” Obermueller said. “I think the city would like improvements of any road to be split or borne in a joint effort, and that percentage has never been determined. They want to bring roads up to urban standards, but our concern is most of these roads are functioning as county roads even though the city has received mill levy funding on the property surrounding these roads.”
Obermueller said the county struggles with why it would spend limited funds to bring county roads to city standards when it may not be necessary and when revenues for land surrounding the roads is going to the city.
“One thing we need to sort out is how that road should function, what that cost share should be, or if it’s going to function fine for the next 10 years, why look at bringing it up to urban standards. We can sit down and come to an agreement, but it will have to be road by road because they all function differently,” Obermueller said.
Bateson said the city agreed that every road is different and will need to be discussed on an individual basis. He also said it is important to distinguish between annexation and taking ownership.
Annexation means the city commits to providing city services in the area. It also corresponds directly with law enforcement. City streets are policed by the police department, while county roads are in the jurisdiction of the sheriff.
Taking ownership means the city assumes responsibility for maintenance and upkeep.
Obermueller said the county wants both annexation and ownership by the city on several roads including portions of Golf Course Road, Absaraka Street, Loop Road, Dry Ranch Road, County Road 66, Skeels Street and more.
Both sides said they plan to continue working through the issues.