No unit system till October?

Published 11:59 pm Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The county’s biggest move to alleviate some of its financial burden — the transition to the unit system of maintaining roads and bridges — could be put off until the new fiscal year, officials said this week.

“October is when we could consolidate all the (district) accounts,” Chairman Lynn Sasser said. “That’s what it’s looking like. I’m wishing it was sooner but that’s what it looks like.”

Under a unit system, the commission employs a county engineer who supervises and directs the daily operations of the county’s road department and is responsible for the direction of all maintenance, construction, engineering and administration activities related to the county’s road and bridge system.

Covington County currently operates under a modified system in which commissioners are responsible for the dirt roads and employees in their districts, while the county engineer oversees maintenance of the county’s paved roads and bridges.

County Engineer Darren Capps said in April that a switch to the unit system could save the county $268,000 a year.

Sasser said the three months between now and Oct. 1 would give time to complete Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projects currently under way as a result of damages sustained countywide during March and April’s rainstorms.

County administrator Brenda Petty said previously the county is depending on FEMA funds to help alleviate some of the county’s current financial burden. She has also said a true picture of the county’s economic situation will not be complete until the county consolidates the districts’ accounts.

To date, the county has moved to cut expenses by splitting operations between the E-911 and the county’s emergency management agency, for an estimated savings of between $16,000-$24,000 a year. Also, the commission has leased the Covington Center Arena, which is estimated to save the county $203,000 a year. However, neither of those cuts has generated any revenue yet.

Additionally, the county will not sell its excess road department equipment as it had previously declared. That move was expected to save the county approximately $250,000.

Capps said the market is “too bad” and the equipment is needed to complete the estimated 250 FEMA projects located throughout the county. By keeping the equipment, the county actually makes money, he said.

“We had said we were going to sell in June, but the market was too bad,” Capps said. “FEMA also pays us to use our equipment — like a Mack truck, they will pay us $80 an hour for its use. Same thing with a grader, FEMA pays $80 an hour for us to use that grader.”

He said those monies, once paid to the county by the federal government, will be used to make the county’s equipment lease payment, which is due at the end of July.

Capps said Tuesday that pending FEMA projects remain his biggest hold-up for the conversion to the unit system.

By Tuesday, one FEMA official had visited 25 of the county’s estimated 250 work sites throughout the county. Those sites alone represent an estimated $500,000 in work. Capps said additional FEMA help is expected in the coming days, which would speed the process up “considerably.”

However, no payment of the estimated $500,000 submitted to the state for FEMA payment has been received yet. Capps said he hopes to receive the funds in the next two to three weeks.

“The whole process (for FEMA projects) is very time consuming,” Capps said. “If it hadn’t been for that, by now, we would have been switched (to the unit system), but with FEMA there’s just too much paperwork.”