Debate continues about road commissions' future

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Critics are still questioning a new law that allows a county’s board of commissioners to abolish and undertake road commission duties.
While understanding the intentions of the legislation – to consolidate local government entities while saving money – skeptics say they are unsure whether the measure will actually alleviate costs.
According to John Niemela, director of the County Road Association of Michigan, there is little to no evidence that consolidation would save taxpayer dollars.
“Road commission administrative expenses are very low,” Niemela said. “The bulk of a road commission’s funding is directed toward static expenses such as road materials, road maintenance and road improvement projects. There are several factors beyond just administrative expenses that must be considered.”
Of the state’s 83 counties, only Macomb and Wayne have road commissions incorporated into their general government. Of the counties with road commissions, 49 are appointed by county commissioners and 32 are elected.
Rep. Dale Zorn, R-Ida, who co-sponsored the new law with Rep. Jon Switalski, D-Warren, said dissolution would create a more streamlined and efficient local government.
“Constituents have asked me if we really need to increase revenue to fix our roads,” Zorn said. “This is a good fiscal option that can be used to appropriate taxpayer money more efficiently when funding roads, before we consider revenue increases.”
However, Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, who opposed the legislation, said its “horribly misleading” to talk about the new law as a pit stop on the way to future savings.
Niemela said there are situations where road commissions could save counties money. Genesee County is an example of how consolidation could be detrimental to long-term savings.
He said the road commission is rated by Standard & Poor’s as AAA, while the county board is rated A, increasing the interest cost on bonds by $53,200 annually.
Niemela also said the law could give too much power to county commissions. He said if the public votes for road commissions, only those constituents should have the power to eliminate them.
In a statement, Gov. Rick Snyder said the method of dissolution depends on whether the public elected the road commission.
“The bills allow county boards to dissolve appointed road commissions, or to ask voters for dissolution of elected road commissions,” Snyder said.
Gary Dittmer, director of the Mason County Road Commission, said although consolidation is a possibility, he isn’t concerned about any of his employees losing their jobs.
“I don’t see where there are any issues with jobs,” Dittmer said. “The roads are still there, work still has to be done.”
Dittmer said the concern is the legal and financial burden that could be placed on counties if they consolidate.
“The commission has workers’ compensation insurance that belongs to a pool which does not include the counties,” Dittmer said. He said counties have no way of covering expenses if something work-related goes wrong.
Niemela also expressed concern about possible legal burdens placed on counties that decide to shoulder road responsibilities.
“Road agencies are one of the only governmental agencies that can be sued,” Niemela said. “If the road commission becomes a department of county government, the county will be responsible for all tort liability present and future.”
In a joint statement, Ottawa County and the Ottawa County Road Commission said they wouldn’t consolidate “merely for the sake of consolidation.
“County officials recognize that a decision of this magnitude will greatly impact motorist and residents of Ottawa County for years to come and should be decided by a process that shows a merger would be beneficial,” the statement said.
Counties are taking different approaches to the new option.
Ingham County has made it clear they would like to eliminate its commission while Calhoun and Isabella counties are still discussing the matter.
In a statement, the Isabella County Board of Commissioners said it would “appoint a task force” to examine the possibility of consolidation.
“Until we have a comprehensive understanding of how the road commission works, a county takeover of road commission responsibilities would not necessarily serve the best interests of Isabella County,” it said.
The statement said voters could be asked to approve a merger as early as Aug. 7.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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