Franklin County commissioners have defended membership dues paid to a regional transportation and planning organization after a resident questioned whether it was a good use of taxpayer money.

The resident, Eric Reichert, suggested that the money could be used in better ways, such as hiring a part-time health inspector or paying sheriff’s deputies.

The county commission recently approved paying $12,686 in annual dues to the East-West Gateway Council of Governments in St. Louis.

While the county could save the membership dues by not joining the East-West Gateway, it risks losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in transportation funding, First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said.

As a federally designated urbanized area, Franklin County is a member of the East-West Gateway Metropolitan Planning Organization. All federal transportation funds that come to the county must go through the East-West Gateway, which helps plan projects. In addition to highway projects, the East-West Gateway also helps design beautification projects, bike trails and walking paths.

Bridge Funding

Membership enables the county to leverage federal funding for critical transportation projects, Brinker added.

For instance, the county was preliminarily approved this year for $160,000 in federal right-of-way acquisition funds for the Bend Road bridge replacement.

The county this year applied to East-West Gateway for $3.6 million to replace the bridge, which officials say is among the worst in the state. But the right-of-way funds were the only dollars approved.

If East-West Gateway approves the rest of the funding next year, the bridge could possibly go under construction in 2016 or 2017, Franklin County Highway Administrator Eva Gadcke said.

Even though the county has not yet secured funding to replace the bridge, funding for many other projects has been approved.

The East-West Gateway has approved about $100.5 million in projects for Franklin County in the current Surface Transportation Program, which runs from 2014-2017, according to D.J. Wilson, the agency’s spokesman. Of that total, about 80 percent is federal funds.

Risk Losing Funding?

Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer said he does not think the county could get highway funds without going through an agency like East-West Gateway. He explained that the funding is disbursed to the different entities that are part of the planning organization.

Second District Commissioner Mike Schatz said the county has belonged to East-West Gateway since the agency’s inception. The East-West Gateway consists of the city of St. Louis and seven surrounding counties, three of which are in Illinois.

If Franklin County did not pay its membership dues that does not mean work on projects would stop immediately, Wilson said. East-West Gateway is a long-range planning group with projects approved through 2017, he noted.

The cost of the dues is far less than what the county risks losing in federal funding from not paying the $12,686, Wilson said.

Loss of Representation

If the county did not pay its dues, it would cease to have membership on the East-West Gateway Board of Directors, according to the agency’s bylaws. This means the county would not have input on how federal dollars were spent on major transportation projects in Franklin County, Wilson said.

The board of directors votes on which projects should be funded and which ones should not be after a lengthy process involving state and local authorities, Wilson added.

Wilson said the dues paid by the county go to the East-West Gateway’s operating budget.

Brinker said the county pays the membership dues because Franklin County has a vested interest in regional transportation projects. Membership gives the county a voice when it comes to large-scale projects, he added.

The county commission scrutinizes its various memberships, Brinker said. For instance, he said the new county commission took an immediate step to save money by cutting its membership dues to the Regional Chamber and Growth Association based in St. Louis.

The previous annual dues to that organization were $25,000, but now they are only $12,500, he said. That organization is supposed to help the county get leads on new businesses, Brinker added.

The fact Griesheimer serves on the East-West Gateway Board of Directors helps Franklin County keep up to date on regional transportation issues, Brinker said.

Franklin County is a key player in the regional transportation system as it is a gateway to St. Louis with Interstate 44 running through the county, Brinker noted.