It’s not a fun time to be in the road business.
Desperately seeking answers regarding leadership in the county road and bridge department, Marion County Commission is asking for help.
The latest expert to offer advice was former Marion County Engineer Norman Bowers who now serves in a consulting capacity with Kansas Association of Counties.
“You’re up against it a little worse because you lost two people at the same time (in the road and bridge department),” Bowers said at Monday’s meeting.
He continued that there were a lot of people retiring from similar positions and there aren’t employees within the department to take over.
There are 21 or 22 Kansas counties that have county engineers. The larger counties, with populations more than 25,000, have them and there is one county engineer who is shared between two counties — Meade and Gray. Bowers continued that Dickinson County and Abilene share an engineer but most counties use consultants.
Another reason the county has not found a public works director is the low pay.
Someone wanting to return to Marion County would be different than someone not familiar with the county.
“Barber County had to pay $50,000 to get somebody in as a road supervisor,” Bowers said. “They also went through a couple of supervisors pretty quickly so they had to bring in someone from out-of-county.”
An engineer’s salary is $70,000 to $80,000 and most engineers don’t want to do day-to-day operations and aren’t trained to do that.
“You need an engineer for projects,” he said.
Bowers said when he was with the county from 1972 to 1976, there were 52 employees in the road department. There were 20 blade routes and the department had its own crew that built bridges.
At that time, there was a superintendent and assistant superintendent with the engineer mainly doing survey work.
“There can be a number of issues why you can’t find a qualified candidate,” Bowers said, “including if the commission is hard to work for and not paying enough. These are hard jobs.”
“We know we don’t pay much,” commissioner Dan Holub said. There are qualified employees in-house but they don’t want to move because they have second jobs that they can’t afford to give up.
“When projects are delayed a year, it seems we get five years behind,” commissioner Randy Dallke said. He used the example of South Third Street/Sunflower Road, Marion. The county received assistance from Kansas Department of Transportation to overlay the road because of the increased traffic while U.S.-77 was constructed. Initial cost estimates were $400,000 but the project cost nearly $800,000.
“We rob Peter to pay Paul. Besides raising tax levies or cutting costs or moving money around, how can we face these issues?” Dallke asked.
Bowers responded that government and businesses are facing costs now that we could have never imagined a few years ago and the county needs to plan ahead. He said it may be difficult to obtain bids for road projects because of a shortage of materials.
Bowers said the county was up against a long-term issue, noting there are roads and bridges every mile.
“With 300 bridges, the county should be replacing four bridges per year. Are we going to keep all of the roads open? Can we keep all paved roads paved and graveled roads graveled?” Bowers asked. “Probably not. With a dwindling population you can’t justify maintaining roads and bridges. Do you plan ahead or do you react?”
A long range plan is needed, Bowers said, to determine where additional money will be obtained.
“You guys decide what you can’t do because you don’t have funds to do what you want to do,” Bowers said.
“We’re already looking at reducing the number of roads being maintained,” Holub said.
“Our big cost is fuel,” commission chairman Bob Hein said.
With that, the commission thanked Bowers for his time and will take his information under advisement.
In other department business:
- Cardie Oil Company had the low bid of $29,249 for 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel at an estimated average cost of $3.77 per gallon and 3,000 gallons of unleaded fuel at $3.34 per gallon.
- Following a 10-minute executive session requested by acting public works director John Summerville, the commission approved a $50 per month salary increase for Brent Hayen because he has been given more duties. His monthly pay will increase from $1,854 to $1,904.
- Dallke asked for and received a 12-minute executive session with Summerville to discuss personnel. An additional 10-minute session was held with no decisions when the meeting returned to open session.