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 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 the dust kicking into the air. A few months go by, and the family grows weary of the gravel and dust and decides to call the 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.
I like to think that I am closer to my constituents and can take care of their needs as required, said DeWitt County Commissioner Gilbert Pargmann, who oversees the roads in his precinct.
Other counties, for reasons based largely on cost, have implemented systems in which county roads are under the auspices of another party, whether it be a road commissioner, superintendent, administrator or engineer. These systems are often called unit, centralized or countywide systems. Of course, these systems do 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.
The unit system is an efficient system, said Uvalde County Road Administrator Wayne Everett. County commissioners may not always be well versed in road matters, and road experts will serve to enhance the countys road department.
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.
Working The Systems
Texas Transportation Code, Chapter 251 and Chapter 252, 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 countys fiscal year showing:
the condition of each road or part of a road and of each culvert and bridge in the commissioner’s precinct;
the amount of money reasonably necessary for maintenance of the roads in the precinct during the next county fiscal year;
the number of traffic control devices in the precinct defaced or torn down;
any new road that should be opened in the precinct; and
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 commissioners 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
At this time we feel like McLennan County can be better served by a precinct system, said Wendall Crunk, commissioner.
When a county is simply maintaining its roads, rather than building its roads, perhaps a unit system would work better, he said. But when setting things up, a commissioner knows best what needs to be paved.
If you have your own precinct, you can quickly handle and take care of problems and complaints, Crunk continued. The clear fact is, were elected by people who live out there on these roads. They call us directly, and they want an answer.
Crunk said the main disadvantage to a precinct system is the duplication of equipment. In his countys precinct system, each precinct has its own set of supplies and machinery and its own crew.
Pargmann said the precincts in his county under the ex officio or precinct system act together in purchasing equipment.
It works nicely for us, Pargmann said. We have no problem making such decisions, and each precinct pays its own share when buying this equipment.
Lubbock County has always used the precinct system, said Commissioner James Kitten. However, the county has intermittent discussions about changing to a consolidated system.
I am for the most efficient system, Kitten said. High-growth areas of the county may benefit from one of the unit systems. However, the constituency may better appreciate the precinct system, which gives the voters personal access to their county commissioner.
In the remaining three systems described in the statute, roads are primarily managed by employees other than the county commissioners.
3. 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. The road commissioner is required to give regular reports to the court.
Fort Bend County is one of the few counties that use the Road Commissioner System.
We were at the right size and the right time, said Marc Grant, Fort Bend County road commissioner. 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 said.
While the elected commissioners still maintain ultimate control over the roads, the appointed road commissioner oversees the daily activity.
My bosses are the commissioners, he added. However, the court decided to put the road management in the hands of a road expert.
4. 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 such as whom to hire or fire, said Bob Bass, attorney with Allison, Bass & Associates, L.L.P., of Austin. This contrasts with the Road Commissioner and Road Superintendent systems, in which the court maintains a supervisory role.
Wayne Everett has been Uvalde Countys road administrator for 14 years.
In the unit system, you can get a lot more quality work done with a lot less cost, he said.
The county commissioners do not lose power, Everett said, rather we as administrators or engineers can enhance our commissioners.
Counties considering a unit system need to carefully select a qualified person for the position and then give that person ample room and enough time to work before making a judgment call, he said. Two months isnt enough time to evaluate whether or not the unit system is workable.
The road department is a minute part of what a commissioner does in this day and time, Everett said, and the county engineer or road administrator can give commissioners time to fulfill other responsibilities.
Other counties have invited Everett to make presentations on the unit system; for instance, in June Everett spoke with officials and staff in Medina County.
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 the roads are. So its understandable that they are very sensitive to whos taking care of the road issue.
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.
The unit system is a well-designed system that works, said Everett, who acknowledged that in rare circumstances, very small counties might not be able to support another road position.
Theres a place for both of them, said Crunk of the precinct and unit system. However, Crunk emphasized the personal connection with the constituent afforded by the precinct system.