By JACOB KANCLERZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – Gov. Rick Snyder and some legislators want to merge the state’s county road commissions into their respective county governments.
Supporters say the move could save millions of dollars for each county.
But some road commissioners say underfunding the roads is the problem, and they’d like to see more revenue raised first.
All but two of Michigan’s 83 counties have county road commissions that are independent from the county government. County road commissions maintain and improve local roads and bridges and have been around since the early 1900s.
Snyder recently proposed allowing counties to take over road commission duties. That same day, Rep. Jon Switalski, D-Warren, introduced legislation to allow counties to do that by a board resolution.
Switalksi is from Macomb County, which along with Wayne County has merged road administration into the county government. The action was approved by Macomb voters in 2009 and took effect this past January.
Switalkski, who pushed for the change, said his county has already saved $400,000 this year from the merger. County officials estimate it will save up to $1 million annually in salaries, perks and benefits due to staff reductions.
However, some road commissioners aren’t convinced consolidation is effective. Some road commissions are already efficient, said Alan Cooper, the manager of the Wexford County Road Commission.
“We’ve consolidated services, we bid with other road commissions, we share equipment with each other, we do work for other agencies,” he said.
The Wexford Road Commission employs 10 people– three commissioners and their staff. Cooper said the commission chairman earns $4,500 a year and the two other commissioners make $3,600 a year.
The real problem, county road officials say, is insufficient funding.
County roads get 39 percent of the annual transportation budget, said Ed Noyola, the deputy director of the County Roads Association of Michigan.
“The system isn’t broke, it’s just underfunded,” Cooper said. He instead would like to see progress on Snyder’s proposals for changing the way road revenue is collected. He supports the switch from the 19 cents-per-gallon tax on gas to a tax on a certain percent of the per-gallon price. The new tax would raise more revenue than the old tax because when the price of gas goes up, so will the amount of revenue collected, said Cooper. The old tax raises more revenue only if more people buy more gas.
Switalski said the counties could use the same funds distributed to road commissions if they absorbed them.
However, Noyola said counties don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, and would be replacing nearly 100 years of expertise in maintaining roads that the road commissions have.
“There needs to be more thought into it and understanding of what they’re (the counties) taking over or what responsibilities they’re going to incur,” he said.
Noyola said the bill’s language is too simple, and doesn’t address the question of whether current funding levels are adequate.
“If we’re going to make an honest evaluation of what responsibilities or additional responsibilities we’re asking ourselves to absorb and incorporate into our current county government, you need to know how much money we’re talking,” he said.
Although road officials agree more funding is the priority, they see other flaws with consolidation.
It would make the process of improving roads more political, Noyola said, with county commissioners only looking after the districts they represent.
“We don’t look at whose district is that road in, whose district is that bridge in,” he said. “When you go to the county government, they tend to be very … district oriented. You can politicize road improvement work very quickly by the county taking over.”
Jim Iwanicki, engineer manager for the Marquette County Road Commission, agrees.
“The biggest effect is that you’ll have county commissioners fighting for dollars for their specific area, and it will be managed based on politics rather than the good for the entire county,” he said.
Still, Switalksi argues that eliminating county road commissions is a step toward containing Michigan’s immense road agency network. He said there are 617 road agencies in Michigan, including some for townships and villages.
“In my opinion, 617 individual road agencies is way too many, and is not symbolic of an efficiently run transportation system and government as a whole,” he said. “So I think this a small step toward reforming that, so we can put less money in administration and put that money right to fixing our roads.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By JACOB KANCLERZ