Road budget a balancing act

Published 9:04 pm Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Editor’s note: The following is the third in a series of stories looking at the financial state of the Chilton County Commission and county departments. The first two stories appeared on July 29 and 31.

Chilton County Engineer Tony Wearren is planning to trim about $700,000 from the road department budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The proposed budget comes to an approximate total of $4 million, compared with the $4.77 million the department started out with on Oct. 1, 2008.

But all current county budgets were cut in midstream when the commission learned of a potential $1.2 million shortfall in March. This meant a $191,000 reduction for the road department, mostly in the area of labor.

While fuel is stable for now, the costs of building materials, supplies, parts, labor rates and equipment continue to go up.

“The bottom line is we just do less,” Wearren said.

Most likely, this will mean less resurfacing, shoulder clipping and repair work on paved roads. Not to mention the fact that Wearren’s department is operating with 10 less staff members — 44 total — than when he started a year and a half ago.

“My whole aim is we’d rather keep everyone we’ve got and not have to lay anybody off than to build staff back up and worry about layoffs in the future,” he said.

Bibb County’s road department, for example, laid off all their grass cutting workers for the winter.

“I don’t believe in doing that,” Wearren said.

The road budget is divided up into four operating funds: 7-cent gasoline, 4-cent RRR, 5-cent RRR, and severance.

The 7-cent gas fund is mainly for salaries, equipment and repairs. The 4-cent RRR and 5-cent RRR, which stand for rehabilitation, restoration and resurfacing, can be used for such items as digging roadside drainage ditches. Also, roads may be paved out of the 5-cent fund.

Reductions were made as follows: $114,032.04 out of 7-cent gasoline; $19,951.32 out of 4-cent RRR; $49,545.36 out of 5-cent RRR; and $7,567.50 out of severance.

While some county departments are opting to sacrifice training, Wearren said much of his department’s training is mandatory. Road crewmen must be certified in bridge inspection, roadway technician work, storm water and Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) requirements, to name a few.

“I’ve got to have a certain number of hours every year in order to keep my license, and I’ve got to have my license in order to keep this job,” he said.

In his proposed budget for 2009-2010, Wearren is asking for the 8 percent back. Still, it will probably be the most difficult balancing act yet.

While equipment must be maintained to a certain degree, it is sometimes easier to buy another gallon of fluid than to repair a leaking lift cylinder on a truck. For this reason, during a tight budget year, repairs are made as money becomes available. This in turn reduces the amount of equipment actively working on the roads.

“Roads and bridges are only going to get worse until we get the money to catch up,” Wearren said. “If I cut people, the work’s not going to get done either.”

The answer? Wearren said a 1-cent sales tax would generate substantial revenue for the county’s roads and bridges. Commissioners have discussed a referendum for a 1-cent sales tax this year, but no decision has been reached.

Ultimately, Wearren says, it’s the people’s choice.

“If you vote it down, it means you’re happy with what you’ve got. If you vote for it, it means you want more,” he said.