Unit Road System struggles with under-funded budget

Unit Road System struggles with under-funded budget

By Kathi Bliss

Editor/POST-REGISTER

 

As spring melts into summer, Caldwell County Judge Kenneth Schawe and Interim Auditor Elizabeth Mundine begin to undertake the complicated and usually thankless task of beginning preparations for the County budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The situation becomes trickier still as residents from across Caldwell County rise up in an attempt to pressure their County Commissioners to help with specific issues – most often involving the deteriorating condition of many county-maintained roads. However, unlike most County Commissioners in the State of Texas, the Caldwell County Commissioners are rendered virtually powerless to prioritize roads.

In a 1986 election, the voters of Caldwell County overwhelmingly chose to do away with the Precinct Road Commissioner system, instead choosing to move to a Unit Road System, which unites all four precincts under the supervision of one Unit Road Administrator – in Caldwell County’s case, Texas Department of Transportation veteran Donald Leclerc.

The Unit Road System, which centralizes both staffing and equipment, also gives equal weight to each road in the County, rather than prioritizing some over others, as individual Commissioners were accused of doing in the past. Under one centralized budget, rather than four separate budgets, Leclerc is able to stretch his budget for maintenance across all 414 miles of Caldwell County roads.

Unfortunately, that budget, already stretched thin, often goes un-expanded in the face of other county needs. In fact, the current Fiscal Year budget totaled only $2.8 million, which included over $828,000 in staffing costs, and $455,000 for the purchase of two new brush-cutters.

Of the remaining budget, only $270,000 is allocated for seal coating, dust control and vegetation management – effectively $65 per mile to maintain the roads all year long.

“I understand the complaints and I see a lot of work that needs to be done, but we can only do so much with what we have,” Leclerc has said.

Since taking over as Unit Road Administrator in September, Leclerc said much of his focus has been on training and cross-training the staff, in an effort to streamline processes and make the department more efficient, thereby enabling the crews to serve more areas of the county in a shorter period of time.

“Even though we don’t really divide into ‘precincts,’ we do have the county divided into areas, and we have 10 men in each area,” he said. “Instead of four foremen under the Commissioner system, we have two.”

However, during the spring and summer months, six of the 20 crew members are pulled away from road maintenance and brush control specifically for mowing – something that has been in high demand particularly this spring, with the mild winter and wet spring causing explosive growth in the county’s right-of-ways.

Additionally, Leclerc said, the County is still waiting for approval and reimbursement from FEMA for the damage done during the three historic flooding events that pounded Caldwell County in 2015 and 2016.

“There was a lot of loss, and we had to do a lot of mitigation,” he said. “And some of that…. We’re waiting for the funding to come through for reimbursement.”

Regardless of his tight budget, Leclerc said he has been able to use his former contacts through TxDOT for work-arounds, and has knowledge of grants that could help the County acquire equipment.

“TCEQ has some grants that could help the county replace some of the older equipment,” he said. “And I often have the chance to work with TxDOT to pick up reclaimed pavement millings that we are able to use here.”

And, while he has been working toward developing a three-year plan for road improvement, he admits it’s unlikely his department can ever truly make the citizens they serve happy.

“Of course, everyone wants their road to be paved,” he said. “And we’d love to be able to pave everyone’s road, but I just can’t see that happening, without passing a bond or some other kind of extreme action by the Commissioners Court.”

Currently, around 283 miles of the county’s roads remain unpaved, he said, and paving would cost roughly $68,000 per mile, because of the extent of work that would need to be done to pave properly. Even then, if the County invested the $1.92 million that would be required to pave the roads, they would likely be still more costly to maintain.

In the meantime, his crews do the best they can to manage, within their current constraints.

“Roughness and dust, those are the major issues that we always have complaints about,” he said. “And we do the best you can, but there are times that you can’t blade, because that just makes the dust worse, and we do the best we can with the millings and patching, but you can only stretch it so far.”

Because he has to oversee the entire county’s roads, he said, he has to prioritize based on several factors, including traffic patterns, overall condition, and maintenance history. Prior to the creation of the Unit Road System, the four commissioners each determined on their own how the roads in their precinct would be handled. In most places in Texas, they still do.

Unfortunately, such a system makes it easy for Commissioners to use county-owned equipment and materials to curry personal favor, something supporters of the Unit Road System back in the 1980s accused the seated commissioners of doing, according to news reports from that period of time.

A recent study published by the Texas Association of Counties indicates that only 59 of Texas’ 254 counties are confirmed as using the Unit Road System, rather than some form of Commissioner system.

Caldwell County made the shift in 1986, after a contentious election showed that some 57 percent of voters at that time wanted it.

Chief against the idea at the time were two seated Commissioners, Jack Schneider and Ronnie Duesterheft, who were both vocally opposed to the proposition, in part because of the initial startup cost, and because of the need to fund a Unit Road Administrator, along with staffing the department.

“As Caldwell County develops a larger tax base, the affordability and the advantages of this system will be something to consider,” they wrote in an column in advance of the 1986 election.

And words they penned at that time still ring true, “[the Unit Road System] relieves the elected official from being directly responsible to the taxpayer for the condition of the roads in his precinct.”

The Commissioners are directly responsible, however, for the level to which the County chooses to fund that system; they set the budget for the department as a whole, leaving Leclerc responsible for allocating those funds.

Under the old system, the budgets for each precinct were based on the assessed property values in each area, which meant Precinct One received the lion’s share of the $700,000 budget, and the more rural areas of the County were left largely under-funded.

Many would argue that even in the current system, the roads remain under-funded. In fact, one expert with knowledge of county and road budgets suggests that the current $2.8 million budget is an actual decrease in funding, in real-world dollars.

It is too early to tell how the Unit Road System budget will be handled in the upcoming budget cycle. Still, a more clear understanding of how the process works could help County residents to make their opinions known.

kathibliss@post-register.com

the County, rather than prioritizing some over others, as individual Commissioners were accused of doing in the past. Under one centralized budget, rather than four separate budgets, Leclerc is able to stretch his budget for maintenance across all 414 miles of Caldwell County roads.

Unfortunately, that budget, already stretched thin, often goes un-expanded in the face of other county needs. In fact, the current Fiscal Year budget totaled only $2.8 million, which included over $828,000 in staffing costs, and $455,000 for the purchase of two new brush-cutters.

Of the remaining budget, only $270,000 is allocated for seal coating, dust control and vegetation management – effectively $65 per mile to maintain the roads all year long.

“I understand the complaints and I see a lot of work that needs to be done, but we can only do so much with what we have,” Leclerc has said.

Since taking over as Unit Road Administrator in September, Leclerc said much of his focus has been on training and cross-training the staff, in an effort to streamline processes and make the department more efficient, thereby enabling the crews to serve more areas of the county in a shorter period of time.

“Even though we don’t really divide into ‘precincts,’ we do have the county divided into areas, and we have 10 men in each area,” he said. “Instead of four foremen under the Commissioner system, we have two.”

However, during the spring and summer months, six of the 20 crew members are pulled away from road maintenance and brush control specifically for mowing – something that has been in high demand particularly this spring, with the mild winter and wet spring causing explosive growth in the county’s right-of-ways.

Additionally, Leclerc said, the County is still waiting for approval and reimbursement from FEMA for the damage done during the three historic flooding events that pounded Caldwell County in 2015 and 2016.

“There was a lot of loss, and we had to do a lot of mitigation,” he said. “And some of that…. We’re waiting for the funding to come through for reimbursement.”

Regardless of his tight budget, Leclerc said he has been able to use his former contacts through TxDOT for work-arounds, and has knowledge of grants that could help the County acquire equipment.

“TCEQ has some grants that could help the county replace some of the older equipment,” he said. “And I often have the chance to work with TxDOT to pick up reclaimed pavement millings that we are able to use here.”

And, while he has been working toward developing a three-year plan for road improvement, he admits it’s unlikely his department can ever truly make the citizens they serve happy.

“Of course, everyone wants their road to be paved,” he said. “And we’d love to be able to pave everyone’s road, but I just can’t see that happening, without passing a bond or some other kind of extreme action by the Commissioners Court.”

Currently, around 283 miles of the county’s roads remain unpaved, he said, and paving would cost roughly $68,000 per mile, because of the extent of work that would need to be done to pave properly. Even then, if the County invested the $1.92 million that would be required to pave the roads, they would likely be still more costly to maintain.

In the meantime, his crews do the best they can to manage, within their current constraints.

“Roughness and dust, those are the major issues that we always have complaints about,” he said. “And we do the best you can, but there are times that you can’t blade, because that just makes the dust worse, and we do the best we can with the millings and patching, but you can only stretch it so far.”

Because he has to oversee the entire county’s roads, he said, he has to prioritize based on several factors, including traffic patterns, overall condition, and maintenance history. Prior to the creation of the Unit Road System, the four commissioners each determined on their own how the roads in their precinct would be handled. In most places in Texas, they still do.

Unfortunately, such a system makes it easy for Commissioners to use county-owned equipment and materials to curry personal favor, something supporters of the Unit Road System back in the 1980s accused the seated commissioners of doing, according to news reports from that period of time.

A recent study published by the Texas Association of Counties indicates that only 59 of Texas’ 254 counties are confirmed as using the Unit Road System, rather than some form of Commissioner system.

Caldwell County made the shift in 1986, after a contentious election showed that some 57 percent of voters at that time wanted it.

Chief against the idea at the time were two seated Commissioners, Jack Schneider and Ronnie Duesterheft, who were both vocally opposed to the proposition, in part because of the initial startup cost, and because of the need to fund a Unit Road Administrator, along with staffing the department.

“As Caldwell County develops a larger tax base, the affordability and the advantages of this system will be something to consider,” they wrote in an column in advance of the 1986 election.

And words they penned at that time still ring true, “[the Unit Road System] relieves the elected official from being directly responsible to the taxpayer for the condition of the roads in his precinct.”

The Commissioners are directly responsible, however, for the level to which the County chooses to fund that system; they set the budget for the department as a whole, leaving Leclerc responsible for allocating those funds.

Under the old system, the budgets for each precinct were based on the assessed property values in each area, which meant Precinct One received the lion’s share of the $700,000 budget, and the more rural areas of the County were left largely under-funded.

Many would argue that even in the current system, the roads remain under-funded. In fact, one expert with knowledge of county and road budgets suggests that the current $2.8 million budget is an actual decrease in funding, in real-world dollars.

It is too early to tell how the Unit Road System budget will be handled in the upcoming budget cycle. Still, a more clear understanding of how the process works could help County residents to make their opinions known.

kathibliss@post-register.com

 

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