Wearren engineers longest engineer career in Chilton County

Published 4:23 pm Thursday, February 2, 2023

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By Carey Reeder | Staff Writer

In Chilton County, no one’s roots run deeper than that of Tony Wearren’s. His family history dates back to the very first day of this county’s existence. His time serving as the Chilton County engineer came to an end at the end of 2022 when he retired. However, the impact he and his department left on the county that his third great-grandfather Alfred Baker founded will be felt for many years to come.

Wearren moved to Chilton County about 40 years ago, and his mother told him he had a lot of kin in the area. The more Wearren researched he discovered the man who gave the land for what is now the city of Clanton, Baker, was his third great-grandfather.

“It is really amazing that I wound up here in a county that at one time my great-grandfather founded,” Wearren said.

Wearren worked as the Chilton County engineer from 2007-2022 and is the longest serving county engineer in the county’s history. The amount of work he was able to get done in almost 16 years of service was undeniable, and it centered around the road department.

“I loved the job and working for the county, and if there is one department who gets the most complaints, it is the road department,” Wearren said. “Everybody rides on the roads, and it is a constant source of aggravation to a lot of people, but it is well understood.”

When Wearren started in 2007, there were 36 bridges in the county that were rated below what a school bus could safely cross. Half of those 36 bridges were rated at three tons, which is the minimum rating a bridge can receive before it has to close down.

Wearren was able to do calculations on certain bridges and found out they would not necessarily need to be replaced with another bridge, but a culvert system would be sufficient. That was able to save money, take the bridge off the inventory list to have to be state inspected and reduce the workload on his employees.

Wearren was also able to develop two of his employees into state certified bridge inspectors, which takes five years to complete.

Chilton County has over 100 bridges and culvert structures, and Wearren said he considered bridges as a priority. When he left office at the end of 2022, there were no three-ton bridges in Chilton County, and there were only one or two that a school bus could not cross.

“What good is it to have a great road to a bridge you cannot cross,” Wearren said. “We were able to eliminate a lot of potential dangers, and to provide for growth in areas and them not be restricted by subpar bridges.”

A sales tax was passed by the commission in 2019, and “that brought in very much needed revenue” to the road department. Prior to the sales tax, the road department relied on taxes received from gasoline, which is distributed statewide.

The road department was able to resurface around $13 million of paved roads with those additional funds from the new sales tax, but that only represented 8% of all of the paved roads in Chilton County.

“The guys really did a great job with what we had to work with,” Wearren said. “(The road department) is not all about how something looks, but how functional is it. Our (safety) record over the 16 years I was there was really great as far as no major accidents, injuries or deaths that were a direct result of road hazards.”

Wearren began finding ways he could get money to come back into the county through various programs. He and the road department completed major projects at the airport. Those projects were able to be reimbursed through federal funds, and that money was funneled back into the county.

Wearren said he was particularly proud of the work he and his team were able to get done at the airport over the years.

“While we are a department, that for the main part, has been an expense where we get money and go out and maintain the roads. There are some programs where we have been able to generate probably close to a million dollars,” Wearren said. “Those are the things we tried to do besides just go address roads.”

Wearren got the road department involved in a program that buys new dump trucks, uses them for a year and then resells them for a higher price than originally purchased. Those extra funds were once again funneled back into the county.

Chilton County Commissioner Joseph Parnell said he was always impressed with how economically sound Wearren was able to be over so many different projects during his tenure.

“Everything Tony did for this county was positive,” Parnell said. “He figured out how to work with what he had. Tony always found a way to keep our roads safe and open … He always had a good attitude, and he never threw the commission under the bus. He would talk to us privately, and he handled all parts of his job very responsibility and professionally. He is going to be missed around here.”

Some of the other projects Wearren and the road department were able to complete included major slide repair to County Road 53, a new parking lot for the Chilton County Courthouse, storm shelter site improvements, improvements at the Chilton County and Clanton shooting range and improvements to gas pumps and storage buildings for county employees.

“He had so many things to do, it is hard to point out one specific thing. He always did a great job,” Chilton County Commissioner Joe Headley said. “I think he had too much stuff to do and could not do it all. We are getting the money in now for the next engineer, it will be a bit better.”

All of these projects were done with virtually no budget increase throughout his tenure.

“I have only been a commissioner for two years, and Tony was great to me,” Chilton County Commissioner Randell Kelley said. “Any time I would ask him a question or point of a problem to him he did his best to get right on it. I think he is a good man.”

Wearren said it was always difficult having a lack of equipment when he first started as county engineer. The county had four graders to grade the 400 miles of dirt roads that are in Chilton County, and they had been in the equipment inventory for a while and repaired regularly.

The trucks for the road department had been purchased every way imaginable and most were in bad shape. There was a $75,000 budget solely for truck repairs when Wearren started in 2007.

He found through the Alabama Department of Transportation surplus pages that trucks were only a few years old and had low mileage. Wearren could buy two of those trucks for around $40,000, and he started to replace all of the run-down trucks in the fleet.

“We started replacing our fleet that way,” Wearren said. “When I left, I think our repair cost on trucks was down to about $7,000 (from $40,000). All of that approved our availability to be out and about and to do the jobs.”

Wearren also cut costs by eliminating the number of employees in the road department. Wearren shrunk the number from 55 when he started in 2007 to 40 when he left office. He said the 40 employees were getting more work done than the 55 employees because of the equipment being updated.

“The things that we could do to move the county forward and to not only bring in money for the county, but to make it a better place to live is highlighted in those things that we were able to accomplish,” Wearren said. “For the people (at the road department) to accomplish what they did with the amount of equipment they had was impressive.”

Wearren said it will be nice to go out to eat or go to church without having someone approach him about a road. He is looking forward to playing a lot of golf in his retirement, and he is planning on taking up guitar lessons.

To the incoming Chilton County engineer, Wearren’s advice is to listen to the staff at the road department to establish themselves.

“That staff is excellent,” Wearren said. “We have guys that know equipment inside and out … Come in, listen to your current staff, and then pick up and go. They will face some challenges, but they have great help with that staff.”

A new playground, parking lot and campsite improvements at Higgins Ferry, 25 new campsites and a repaved park entrance at Minooka Park and countless patch jobs around Chilton County are some of the other projects Wearren spearheaded during his tenure.

“It was by far the best job I had in my tenure of employment,” Wearren said. “The reason why I put up with the fuss, the politics and all the other stuff was to make a difference for the county. That is why I served for that long, and enjoyed it.”