Precinct, Countywide Road Systems Meet Varied Needs
On the surface, roadways seem understandably impersonal. Whether they are gravel or concrete, their finite function is to transport people and goods. But against the backdrop of county government, roads and the issues they bring to the commissioners court are often personal and anything but simple.
Consider the history between the commissioner and the road. Before population booms and urban sprawl, roads connected county commissioners to constituents.
For instance, a new family buys the house on the hill. As the movers cart furniture up the gravel hill to the home, the owners begin to notice rocks kicking into the air. A few months go by, the family grows weary of the rough surface, and they decide to call the county commissioner. A relationship is formed.
In many counties this scenario is still a reality. Under the Ex Officio Road Commissioner System, commonly known as the precinct system, commissioners are the road commissioners of their precincts.
“In a small, rural county, in particular, we can oversee the work ourselves,” said DeWitt County Commissioner Curtis G. Afflerbach. “The people who elected us call us, and it seems to work real well. Each one of us has our own crews and our own areas that we take care of, and we can get work done quickly.”
Other counties have implemented a system in which roads are viewed from a countywide perspective, versus a precinct perspective, and placed under the supervision of either an engineer or road administrator, known as the County Road Department System. This system is often referred to as the unit system. Of course, the unit system does not prohibit a constituent from phoning a commissioner regarding a road concern. However, the commissioner is no longer directly responsible for the daily upkeep of the roads.
Nacogdoches County utilizes a unit system run by a road administrator, and “this system works very well in our county,” said County Commissioner Jerry Don Williamson.
“With the unit system in place, county commissioners are able to help the citizens in their precinct with numerous issues instead of having to spend all of their time working on roads,” said Williamson, a member of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas Commissioners Education Committee.
Still other counties have selected the Road Commissioner System, utilizing either a road district or consolidated format with county commissioners maintaining collective and supervisory control over the road commissioner(s) who are employed by the county. The county commissioner is not the road commissioner.
Road systems are not a matter of right vs. wrong. Rather, commissioners are trying to balance constituents’ needs, construction and maintenance costs, and projections of growth. And, of course, what works well in one county may not be the solution for another.
A county road is a public road that has been accepted for maintenance by the commissioners court pursuant to the standards set by the court, said Fort Bend County Road Commissioner Marc Grant. These roads are located in the unincorporated areas of the county.
There are many roads within the county that are not county-maintained roads, Grant said, including:
- private roads constructed in private subdivisions, maintained by the private residents/homeowners association;
- interstate highways,U.S.highways, state highways, farm-to-market roads, spurs, and park roads maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation;
- roads within an established subdivision that have not been accepted for maintenance, therefore are still the responsibility of the developer; and
- roads within the incorporated limits of cities, villages, towns or other entities, maintained by those entities.
With regard to the authority of the commissioners court, Bob Bass, attorney with Allison, Bass & Associates, LLP, cited the Transportation Code and the Local Government Code.
According to Chapter 251 of the Transportation Code, the court is to “make and enforce all reasonable and necessary rules and orders for the construction and maintenance of public roads except as prohibited by law.”
Article 16, Section 24 of the Texas Constitution, together with Chapters 251, 258 and 281 of the Texas Transportation Code, allow the county commissioners court to lay out and establish, change and discontinue public roads and highways and to exercise general control over all roads, highways, ferries and bridges in their counties.
Road statutes and legal opinions offer additional guidelines delineating authority and limitations:
ü An individual commissioner has no authority to establish a county road.
ü Roads should be classified as 1st, 2nd or 3rd class roads.
ü The court may establish or change the status of a county road.
ü The county cannot maintain a private road.
ü County labor, materials and equipment cannot be used on private property (note that by way of Article 3, Section 52f of the Texas Constitution, counties with a population under 5,000 may perform work on private roads for a fee, with all proceeds to support county road maintenance).
ü It is vital to have clear authority for maintenance on all roads in the county inventory.
Working the Systems
Chapters 251 and 252 of the Texas Transportation Code discuss general county authority relating to roads and bridges and systems of county road administration, respectively. The first two road management options are known as precinct systems, whereby county commissioners oversee the roads in their individual precincts.
1. Road Supervisor System – Chapter 251.004
The county commissioners are the supervisors of the public roads in a county unless the county adopts an optional system of administering the county roads under Chapter 252.
The statute requires a county commissioner serving as a road supervisor to supervise the public roads in the commissioner's precinct at least once each month and make a report during the ninth month of the county’s fiscal year showing:
a) the condition of each road or part of a road and of each culvert and bridge in the commissioner's precinct;
b) the amount of money reasonably necessary for maintenance of the roads in the precinct during the next county fiscal year;
c) the number of traffic control devices in the precinct defaced or torn down;
d) any new road that should be opened in the precinct; and
e) any bridges, culverts, or other improvements necessary to place the roads in the precinct in good condition, and the probable cost of the improvements.
2. Ex Officio Road Commissioner System – Chapter 252.001
The commissioner takes care of the roads in the commissioner’s precinct. Under rules adopted by the court, the commissioner directs the laying out of new roads, construction or changing of roads, and building of bridges. Subject to authorization of the court, the commissioner can hire employees, to be paid from the county road and bridge fund.
According to the statute, “an ex officio road commissioner has the duties of a supervisor of public roads…”
Wharton County Commissioner Philip Miller has been a commissioner for 15 years, and 50 percent of his calls are road related.
Fellow Wharton County Commissioner D.C. “Chris” King, who has served some 22 years, said eight out of 10 calls he receives on a daily basis involve road and drainage issues.
“We all realize that a commissioner’s job entails much more than merely maintaining roads and bridges,” King said. “However, in the eyes of many of our constituents, the road and drainage responsibilities are often the most obvious signs of their tax dollars at work.
“Managing a precinct maintenance system affords me the opportunity to better illustrate why the voters placed their confidence in me,” King maintained.
The precinct systems are more political, Miller said, “and since your job may depend on it, you would react faster to the problems at hand.”
However, Miller said his personal choice is the unit road system “because of the savings to the county in the duplication of equipment and the fact that you could take the politics out of the equation.”
The precinct system may require more equipment and manpower, Afflerbach agreed, but in DeWitt County “it seems we can get to things quicker with each of us having our own mowers, etc.”
In the remaining three systems described in the statute, roads are primarily managed by employees other than the county commissioners.
- Road Commissioner System – Chapter 252.101
The law allows commissioners to employ up to four road commissioners who are subject to the control, supervision, orders and approval of the commissioners court. The road commissioner ensures that roads and bridges are kept in good repair, establishes a system of grading and draining public roads, and spends funds as needed on the public roads, bridges and culverts. Road commissioners may use road districts separate from precincts or operate under a countywide or consolidated system. The road commissioner is required to give regular reports to the court.
Fort Bend County has used the Road Commissioner System since 1996.
“We were at the right size and the right time,” said Grant, and everybody realized that the consolidation of manpower and equipment would benefit the county.
“We were taking some of the politics out of it and looking at it from a business standpoint in where we needed to go to get from Point A to Point B,” Grant explained.
While the elected commissioners still maintain ultimate control over the roads, the appointed road commissioner oversees the daily activity.
“My bosses are the commissioners,” Grant added. However, the court decided to put the road management in the hands of a road professional.
After months of discussion, theLubbock County Commissioners Courtformerly switched from the precinct system to the Road Commissioner System in October 2006, consolidating all activity within the public works department with Nick Olenik, public works director, serving as the road commissioner.
“Having experienced the change, I believe that the consolidated operating system of road maintenance has proven to be more effective and efficient,” Olenik said. “Looking back, I think it has been very successful.”
- Road Superintendent System – Chapter 252.201
This system is quite similar to the Road Commissioner System. The court appoints a superintendent for the county or one superintendent for each precinct for a two-year term. Work performed under the superintendent is subject to the general supervision of the commissioners court. The superintendent directs the laying out, construction, changing and repairing of roads and bridges and other related duties including grading and draining.
5. County Road Department System – Road Engineer or Road Administrator – Chapter 252.301
This system, commonly referred to as the unit system, requires a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the numbers cast in the last election for governor. The petition is presented and certified by the clerk, like any other election, and then goes on the ballot. If passed, the countywide system is imposed upon the county and cannot be done away with except by another petition and vote.
The system creates a county road department that includes the court as a policymaking body and the county road engineer as the chief executive officer. The court appoints a licensed, professional engineer for an indefinite term. If a county cannot for good reason hire an engineer, the law allows the county to appoint a county road administrator who has had experience in road building or maintenance or other types of construction work.
Two key elements make this system unique. First, every road activity, whether it be construction, maintenance, or use of county road department equipment, is “to be based on the county as a whole without regard to commissioners’ precincts,” according to the statute.
Second, while the court maintains general policymaking authority, the engineer or road administrator is the executive officer, meaning he or she makes key decisions including hiring and firing, said Bass. This contrasts with the Road Commissioner and Road Superintendent systems, in which the court maintains a supervisory role.
“The road administrator and his employees can spend all of their time doing major and minor work on the roads throughout the county,” Williamson maintained. In Nacogdoches County, the monies budgeted to the road and bridge department are prorated by mileage to each precinct.
The road administrator is hired by the court and voted on in open session, Williamson continued. As with all department heads under the commissioners court, the road administrator submits monthly reports to the court. These reports are reviewed and discussed in a commissioners court meeting, “allowing the public to be able to know what is happening on particular roads and how their money is being spent.”
Choosing a System
Despite the overwhelming number of varied issues facing commissioners, road concerns continue to rise to the top.
“I would venture to say more commissioners are defeated in elections due to road issues than any other issue,” said Bass. “Particularly in rural areas, they get elected or defeated in a large measure on the basis of what conditions the roads are in over time. So it’s understandable that commissioners are very sensitive to who’s taking care of the road issues.”
Bass, who has researched the various road systems, said unit systems tend to work well in large counties with significant budgets who can realize savings via bulk purchasing. However, commissioners in other counties emphasize the personal connection with the constituent afforded by the precinct system. H – By Julie Anderson