As a Calhoun County Road Commissioner, I am pleased to see that Governor Snyder has mustered the political willpower to bring up the topic of road funding because the lack of an appropriate funding mechanism is the main cause of the current sorry state of Michigan’s county roads. We can spend as much time and energy as we like debating whether one county does things better or worse than another county but at the end of the day, shrinking gas tax revenues mandate a change in the funding of Michigan county roads and sooner rather than later.
Road building, and, more importantly, road maintenance is not “new technology” by any stretch of the imagination. People presently working on the roads in every county in Michigan know how to build and maintain good roads but there is no free lunch – you get what you pay for. We could build and maintain longer-lasting European style roads but I know that I am not willing to pay European style gas prices of $8 per gallon to fund those roads.
People who would like to learn more about the history of roads and road funding in Michigan are encouraged to visit the links below to gain a long-term perspective. It would appear that our current experience with roads in Michigan is part of a long-standing pattern which appears to be about a 40 year cycle. Throughout our history as a state, there is a public uproar about bad roads, followed by increased funding and the roads getting fixed, which is inevitably followed by an eventual complacency leading to a lack of funding. Our frost-freeze cycle, coupled with a lack of funding, causes ongoing decay in our roads and we are back to the public uproar phase again.
- General history of Michigan roads, click here.
- “A Quick Guide to Roads and Road Funding in Michigan,” click here.
- “I pay high property taxes. How come my roads are in lousy shape?” click here.
Recently, the question has been posed, “Are road commissions necessary?” This was a fundamental question that I asked when appointed as a road commissioner and here is my answer.
Road commissions as a separate entity may, or may not, be necessary but the functions of the road commission are certainly necessary. In other words, we can choose to make the road commission into a county department and eliminate the five current commissioners (me being one of them). We might save approximately $40,000 per year ($36K in commissioners’ pay and perhaps $4K in administrative costs). Don’t forget that the people actually doing the work of maintaining the roads would presumably become county employees with all of the county benefits, so the actual savings might be less than my figures.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the administrative savings of such a consolidation were in the neighborhood of $50K. A mile of new road with 24 feet width and 3 inch depth costs approximately $140,000, regardless of who does it. $86,000 buys you a little over 1/2 mile of new road and you still have approximately 1300 miles of Calhoun County roads to maintain on a budget that has remained the same or decreased every year but one since 1997. Granted, a half a mile is better than none but let’s not fool ourselves, whether or not the road commission becomes a county department, our statewide road system is still failing and crying out for significant change in its funding mechanism.
No amount of “common sense” is going to generate the revenue that will enable the responsible parties to avoid turning roads back to gravel when electric cars and more efficient gasoline cars continue to reduce gas tax revenues. We can spend a lot of time arguing about whether it is better to have road building in the hands of elected officials or in the hands of professional road builders who answer to an appointed board. Either way, new and/or properly maintained roads cost money and there is no free lunch.
The biggest potential “downside” I see to having the road commission become a county department is that road building and maintenance could easily become more politicized than they already are. For example, it might be somewhat more difficult for a road commission to treat damage to a county commissioner’s personal car from a pothole differently than when a citizen calls in with a similar complaint, such as recently occurred. Currently, county commissioners and their families are treated just like anyone else when they call us or write us to request that the taxpayers fix their car after it is damaged by a pothole. It might be somewhat more difficult for a county employee to tell “the boss” to “contact our insurance company” like everyone else.
As for “increasing accountability”, pursuant to MCL 224.6, the county commissioners can remove a county road commissioner at any time after giving notice of the reasons and a “due process hearing.” Lucas v. Board of County Road Com’rs of Wayne County, 131 Mich.App. 642, 348 N.W.2d 660 (Mich.App. 1984). I am unaware of any statute that says anything like the county commissioners can only remove a road commissioner for due cause. In other words, any road commissioner can be removed by a majority vote of the county commissioners for any reason. If the reason is silly, the voters will ultimately choose whether or not to re-elect any particular county commissioner. County road commissioners currently serve at the pleasure of the elected county commissioners and it appears that there are quite a few people applying to fill the upcoming vacancy.
The accountability exists but if the majority of the voters, through their elected representatives, feel that they would be better served by bringing the road commission “in house,” it appears that they will soon have the legal ability to do so. I do find it interesting that the very commissioner quoted in the paper complaining about a “lack of control” over the road commission has not been to a road commission meeting in the three years that I have been on the board. Of our current county commissioners, there is only one who regularly attends our meetings, and there are three whom I have never seen at one of our meetings in the last three years. There is also one sitting commissioner who attended one road commission meeting but did not speak.
As for any alleged “inefficiencies” at the Calhoun County Road Commission, I am not sure that bringing the road commission “in house” will result in any savings at all. As one example, I would note that the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners paid approximately $93,000.00 to an out-of-state entity to create the county government website. The Calhoun County Road Commission’s website cost the taxpayers of Calhoun County approximately $200.00 and was constructed by Scott Brown, Chairman of Board of Calhoun County Road Commission. There are other areas where bringing the road commission “in house” may not result in any savings and, may in fact, result in higher costs to the taxpayer.
As positive steps going forward, I would suggest that our county board already has the power to switch from a system of appointing road commissioners to a system of general election for road commissioners. Direct election by the voters is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the best way for increasing accountability instead of hiding the road commission away as one more county department in the county bureaucracy. I, like the rest of the board as well as our managing director, are more than willing to meet with anyone to discuss our county roads and ideas about fixing them.
Finally, I would also suggest that all county commissioners actually meet with the road commission in a public format to discuss ways to improve our roads. Crying “we need common sense” and “we have no accountability” is nothing more than political grandstanding when you have not even come to the table to discuss the matters. If elected officials who complain about the roads are not willing to “come to the table”, then I will place them in the same category as the politicians in Lansing who showed up for photo opportunities and promised us $250,000.00 to help clean up the May 29 storm damage and then delivered about 1/5th the promised monies.
If folks really want to get something done about the roads, the rest of the road commissioners and I have been, and continue to be, more than willing to participate in the discussion, but it will be hard work and there are no easy answers.
Member, Calhoun County Board of Road Commissioners