Should county dump district road system to reduce expenses?

Published 11:45 pm Friday, September 19, 2008

Covington County’s commissioners are poised to pass a $20 million budget Monday that is so tight, outgoing Commission Chairman Greg White described it earlier this week as like living “paycheck to paycheck.”

As commissioners face living within that budget, some are proposing converting from a district system to a unit system for the management of the county’s 1,291 miles of roads.

Currently, the county operates with four commissioners controlling the roadwork and employees in their specific districts. Under a unit system, the commission employs a county engineer who supervises and directs the daily operations of the county’s road department. The engineer is responsible for the direction of all maintenance, construction, engineering and administration activities pertaining to the county’s road and bridge system.

During Wednesday’s budget workshop, newly-elected District 1 Commissioner David Ellis noted Elmore County’s recent success with the unit system when he lauded their more than $2 million in savings.

On Friday, Elmore County Commission Chairman Joe Faulk said the decision was great for his county, but explained what Covington County should consider before making the decision to change the way it operates.

“There are three steps the county has to follow,” Faulk said. “First, you must have a solid commitment from the commissioners to totally commit to a unit system, especially if they are used to dealing in a district system.

“Second, you must have the right engineer for the job,” he said. “It must be an engineer who understands the commitment that must be made to go to this system to make it work.

“Thirdly, citizens must be patient, because it is a process — especially if the county has been in a district system in a long time — that is going to take a while to come together. It took us two years,” he said.

Faulk explained that in Elmore County, the district system was used as a political tool.

“Primarily if someone supported (a commissioner) politically, (that person) had (a commissioner’s) attention because the commission basically decided who got work and when,” he said. “Those things are very difficult to stop. When a commitment is made to the unit system, ideally everything is done by priority and not politically.

“That takes a resolve — a great resolve — from the commissioner and the engineer and their highway department employees.”

Elmore County has more than 1,100 miles of paved county roads and 250 miles of dirt roads; Covington County, 620 miles of paved county roads and 671 miles of dirt roads.

Faulk said the first step in the process was the consolidation of each of the district workshops to a centralized location and equipment.

“We made a centralized shop in Wetumpka by condensing all five shops into one,” he said. “It was organized in such a way that it took us about six months to realize where we were equipment wise, what we needed and what we needed to sell,” he said. “Let me tell you, we sold a lot…more than 20 motor graders, eight bulldozers.

“Now, think about the petroleum you’d put in those,” he said. “That was enough to break your budget right there.”

Faulk said no employees were laid off in the transition, and as an added benefit, the county realized an additional advantage to the process.

“There’s the opportunity that an engineer would have to work on state and federal projects,” he said. “Our engineer has the ability to understand projects that qualify for state and federal dollars. Since he came on board five years ago, we’ve been able to garnish a total — not including this year’s money — of $30.5 million in federal and state projects. Those are the kind of things that are a fringe benefit from the transition.”

Faulk said one of the major concerns he has heard voiced about the unit system is the “level of service.”

“That goes back of the politics of the district system” he said. “If you have a batch of supporters that live on a road and they call about a problem and there’s a grader over there an hour after they call? If that’s the case, then yes, the level of service is going to decrease.

“What you have to think about is those people that call and nothing gets done or it takes three weeks to get out there,” he said. “It all goes back to the commissioner’s commitment. When (projects) are placed on a schedule and worked by priority, people get used to it. It was one of the hardest things we had to do but it’s worked for us.”

And it worked to the tune of nearly $2 million in savings in 2007, Faulk said.

“When we implemented the unit system, records were kept,” he said. “We know where our equipment is, what it did while it was there and how long it took it to do the job.”

Faulk said when he took office in 2000, the county owned 27 motor graders and eight bulldozers.

“Now, I think we’re down to six graders and two or three bulldozers,” he said. “We had so much equipment it was incredible. One thing that didn’t factor then, that is in my mind now, is petroleum.

“Take away the duplication of equipment, you’ll save money,” he said. “This year, we budgeted a cushion for petroleum and we ran over $150,000. I think you could easily save $500,000 to $1 million at today’s fuel cost (by eliminating) equipment duplication.”

Being over budget in fuel costs is something Covington County knows about, after reports the county spent more than $250,000 over its fuel budget.

Chairman Greg White has long been a supporter of establishing the unit system in Covington County.

“I have advocated steps to consolidate wherever we can,” White said. “Anything we can do towards consolidating equipment should be beneficial to us, and I think discussion of the unit versus district or other types of consolidation needs to be examined.”

White said a good rule of thumb for counties is one grader per 100 miles of dirt road.

“That would seem that seven graders would take care of our needs. We have 10,” he said. “Every (motor grader) we’re able to cut saves us money — from fuel, insurance, maintenance and more. It really bears looking at.”

Faulk said commissioners need to be committed to whatever decision they make.

“I can’t emphasize enough the commitment level for the commission,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be willing to pay dollars out of your own pocket to make things work or say no,” he said. “If there’s no political commitment to say no, you might as well not do it. There’s no such thing as a modified unit system. Either you’re on it or not. Either your engineer is in charge of department or not.”