By JOE DANDRON
Capital News Service
LANSING — The Ionia County Road Commission maintains more than 1,300 miles of road and 66 bridges, according to its website.
That is, it did so until late October, when the Ionia County Board of Commissioners voted to dissolve the road commission and transfer its responsibilities to a new county road department.
Tensions were high during the meeting as many road commission drivers feared for their jobs, according to the minutes from the meeting where the decision was made.
That action aligns Ionia County with Berrien, Calhoun, Ingham, Jackson, Macomb and Wayne counties, all of which directly control road operations.
It could have financial implications for other counties if they make the same decision, which in turn could save county dollars, according to a feasibility study to the Berrien County Board of Commissioners.
“The financial implications are probably the cost benefits,” said Michigan County Road Association Deputy Director Ed Noyola. “Sharing a clerk, HR (human resources) person, there may be some cost savings there, but I don’t think there is anything eye-popping.”
Although the financial implications among the seven counties haven’t been studied in-depth, Noyola says it would be interesting to see some form of an audit because the argument for dissolving road commissions has often been about saving money.
Paul Spitzley was the head engineer of the Ionia County Road Commission and is now managing director of the new Road Department.
Spitzley says that the case in Ionia wasn’t just about saving money.
“The big reason why the (Ionia County) Board of Commissioners did this was because our pension was underfunded,” Spitzley said. “For now, the revenue (difference) is going to be a net neutral.”
The pension fund for commission staff was grossly inadequate, said Spitzley. By dissolving the commission, the county could even out pension funding for the employees of the commission-turned-road department, but the day-to-day operations haven’t changed.
“We are doing everything we were doing before in terms of how we maintain roads,” Spitzley said.
In 2012, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that enables counties to dissolve their road commissions to bring “greater accountability and efficiency to local government,” his office said at the time.
Soon thereafter, Ingham and Calhoun counties dissolved their road commissions.
However, the legal authority of other counties to make that decision expired on Dec. 31.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is now considering whether to sign legislation sponsored by Sen. Roger Victory, R-Georgetown Township, that would extend the deadline to Dec. 31, 2024.
Bill Conklin, who has been with the Ingham County Road Department since 2008 and is the managing director, said the transition wasn’t hard.
“For the most part it was uneventful,” Conklin said. “(It) didn’t make a difference in terms of infrastructure. It made us more efficient in an administration sense. At this road commission, this administration was folded into the county administration functions.”
Conklin said that the cost savings came in human resources, IT and finance positions. He said day-to-day operations for maintaining the roads didn’t change.
A discussion about dissolving more road commissions hasn’t occurred in any counties since Ionia County acted last October, according to Noyola.
For now, such conversations in the other 76 counties are moot because there’s insufficient evidence that dissolving a road commission would be a serious improvement, but Spitzley said the situation can be examined case-by-case.
The Michigan Association of Counties supports extending the deadline while the County Road Association opposes it.