While tourists frequent the Lake of the Ozarks area during the summer, using the roads and bridges, flooding-prone Miller County is struggling to keep up with its maintenance needs on a tight budget.
The county's roads and bridges department operates on a budget of less than $2.5 million, with $150,000 set aside for road and bridge materials, along with $525,000 for road and bridge construction, repair and maintenance. After appropriating all of the department's expenditures, $53,000 remained in the 2017 budget.
Miller County Commissioner Travis Lawson said the allocated funds might not be enough to complete all of the county's repair projects, especially if another major weather event occurs.
Road crews have already been busy this year repairing about half of the roadway portions damaged by a countywide 2015 flood, hauling about 200,000 tons of base rock and adding more culverts to help prevent future flood damage. On the county's current budget, Lawson is uncertain if his crews could repair the more than a dozen aging bridges in need of maintenance.
"(Are we) adequately funded? No," Lawson said. "We could use quite a bit more funding in roads and bridges, in all reality. You take a flood, if it washes out a bunch of bridges, that money could add up really, really quick."
In the midst of this funding shortfall, one Miller County bridge absorbs approximately $15,000 in labor and materials every year, but many locals and tourists would hate to see it disappear.
The Auglaize Bridge, built in 1931 over Grandglaize Creek, is the larger of Miller County's "swinging bridges" and the longest in-service bridge built by Joseph Dice, of Warsaw. The bridge leads into a Lake of the Ozarks State Parks campsite, and the nearest detour adds about 20 minutes onto a drive down hilly gravel roads leading back to highways.
Known for his hillbilly engineering, Dice participated in creating more than 40 suspension bridges, although he lacked a high school education and never used blueprints. With a string and intuition, Dice was able to determine how long the bridges needed to be and the amount of necessary construction materials.
Due to its unique history and rustic appearance, the Auglaize Bridge has become a prized tourist destination for bridge enthusiasts and history buffs, as well as a sentimental landmark for many area residents. However, it also has become a burden for the county. In 2017, Lawson said, the bridge cost about $5,700 in materials alone, and the roads department already has spent $3,200 this year, with more repairs to be made.
Swinging is the colloquial term for suspension bridges, but the local idiom has become a detriment to the Auglaize Bridge as some visitors put the expression into action.
"They pull out in the middle of the bridge, and they stop and rock the bridge," Lawson said.
When people rock the bridge, it twists and pressures the wooden floor, causing bolts to break. This allows floorboards to pop loose or warp upward at the ends, creating hazards for motorists and pedestrians.
People have even cut lumber from the bridge as firewood or souvenirs. "In the summertime, it's nearly every Monday we are (working on the bridge)," he said. "They've had people just tear it up. It is ridiculous, and it's a cost to the people."
Lawson said he would like to retain the bridge by converting it into a pedestrian crossing and install a new model beside it for motorist traffic. However, he said, a new bridge would cost approximately $5 million — more than double the department's entire annual budget.
"The swinging bridge is a constant uphill battle," Lawson said. "I and all of us down here want to see the bridge remain there, simply because of the historic value. It holds a lot of sentimental value to a lot of people around locally, so you hate to see that bridge just go away. I'm not sure what we can ever do."
Lawson said the county would be greatly aided by outside funding to help maintain the swinging bridge, such as from nonprofit groups, history buffs and bridge enthusiasts.
"I can't speak for all of us, but I would be willing to accept any donations, as long as it is lawful for us to do so because (the Auglaize) is a burden on the county."