When it comes to a county road, there’s a great deal beneath the surface. Just ask Hill County Commissioner Steven Sulak.
In the November 2012 election, 61 percent of Hill County voters cast their ballots in favor of a transition from the Ex Officio Road System, known as the precinct system, to the County Road Department System, commonly referred to as the unit system, which is established through a countywide election. This system creates a single, centralized county road maintenance department managed by an engineer or administrator, as opposed to an individual, commissioner-run precinct department.
Some eight months post-election, the way it all happened still provokes an energized response from Sulak, who insists that the unit system is not a good fit for his rural community.
According to Sulak, the subject was broached in commissioners court when a man presented officials with a request to fund an animal shelter. The man suggested that a switch from the precinct system to the unit system would result in significant cost savings, which could in turn be used to fund the shelter.
“Every member of the commissioners court voiced concern with the unit system and explained why it would not be wise for our county,” Sulak recalled.
First of all, “the taxpayers out here and the citizens in our rural area lose that association with the elected official,” Sulak emphasized. “They lose that connectivity. Instead, they now go to someone who has been appointed, versus the official they elected.”
Equally important, the rural layout of the county; the county population, some 35,000; and the number of road miles, about 1,200, “are all best served by precinct management,” Sulak maintained. Last but not least, the county must now spend its limited tax revenue on the salary and associated costs of new employees.
“Last year we raised taxes to just under the rollback rate,” Sulak noted. “Now, the county must fund new salaries and a new office.”
So why did Hill County voters pass the initiative? Sulak pointed to a citizen’s group that ran a determined campaign, going door-to-door and dispensing literature touting the cost efficiency of the unit system. According to Sulak, a few individuals simultaneously spread the word that resulting savings could go toward a county animal shelter.
Incidentally, Hill County has yet to fund an animal shelter. Rather, the county continues to designate dollars for other worthy programs such as those that help children and families, Sulak detailed.
“I have many animals, myself, and we need to encourage our citizens to continue to care for their pets, rather than spend county money,” Sulak insisted.
While the commissioner minces no words regarding his disappointment in the Hill County vote, he said the unit system may indeed be workable and beneficial in other counties.
“I can see where the system would be efficient in high-density population counties, those with subdivisions and towns, and those counties with the tax revenue to support the system,” Sulak elaborated.
As of press time, another group of Hill County citizens had indicated plans to begin circulating a petition in 2014 with hopes of returning to the precinct system after the November 2014 election.
Two years prior to the Hill County election, in November 2010, Anderson County received a similar petition calling for a shift to the unit system. Only in this instance, a citizen’s group protesting the proposed unit system took to the town, conducting meetings at multiple locations throughout the county opposing the measure. In addition, the commissioners court conducted meetings in each precinct and discussed the pros and cons of the proposed unit system, said Anderson County Commissioner Rashad Q. Mims I.
Some 63 percent of the voters marked “against,” and the measure failed.
One of the chief advantages of the precinct system is the personal contact afforded between the commissioner and the taxpayers, Mims declared.
“The taxpayers of your county don’t have to go through a chain of command to get a project done,” Mims underscored. “The commissioners still get the calls from the people they serve rather than them talking to an engineer or a road administrator.
“The people of your county are still able to have that one-on-one with the county commissioner and express their concerns,” he reiterated.
Anderson County houses some 1,035 miles and has a population of 58,458 according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
“Our county is very happy with the (precinct) system we have in place,” Mims stated.
Nacogdoches County, population 64,524, is also very pleased with its current system – the unit system.
The centralized county road department is run by a road administrator, which “works very well in our county,” reported Nacogdoches 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,” Williamson emphasized.
Nacogdoches County includes some 800 miles of county roads with heavy nature and timber activity on these roads, said Nacogdoches County Commissioner Jim Elder. The county coffers fund one budget for all road and bridge activity and divide the work by precincts, according to mileage.
“We feel this helps reduce many redundant expenses and also helps us react to problems quicker,” Elder stated.
“One example of cost savings involves our recent purchase of a new truck equipped to assist with the removal of dead trees due to the drought,” Elder detailed. “This asset is used throughout the entire county. The county has utilized the unit system for many years and feels it is an extremely efficient use of taxpayer money.”
When transitioning from a precinct to a unit system, the county engineer or road administrator merges the separate precinct maintenance operations together and, over time, the entire county road system functions as a single unit, said Comal County Engineer Thomas H. Hornseth, P.E.
“It can initially be difficult for commissioners to transfer the management of their individual precinct road departments to an appointed official; however, most counties that have made the transition experience cost savings and increased efficiency through centralized equipment and manpower,” Hornseth indicated.
With the Road Department System, “the county’s road maintenance activities are focused on actual need, instead of trying to equally spread the resources evenly in each precinct,” Hornseth continued.
Along with the precinct and unit systems, counties also may opt to use 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 courts 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:
- An individual commissioner has no authority to establish a county road.
- Roads should be classified as 1st, 2nd or 3rd class roads.
- The court may establish or change the status of a county road.
- The county cannot maintain a private road.
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).
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:
- 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
Known as the precinct system, 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…”
“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.”
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. 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, the Lubbock County Commissioners Court formerly 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.”
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.
According to the statute, “The ballot for the election shall be printed to permit voting for or against the proposition: ‘Adopting the Optional County Road System in _______ County.’ ” 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.
“When entering into a countywide unit road system versus the commissioners, or precinct system, a county may realize many benefits,” said Wayne Everett, former road administrator for the Uvalde County Road Department.
“First, consolidating four road and bridge offices into one central office will most likely reduce maintenance costs and utilities, and the county may experience a possible reduction in personnel. Second, consolidating four separate road crews into one pools its stockpile of equipment and vehicles, allowing the county to keep the best equipment and auction off the remaining. Third, the county would have one maintenance facility instead of four.”
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.”
Wilson County Commissioner Larry A. Wiley appreciates this sentiment.
“Having daily responsibility at this level allows a commissioner a better understanding of the needs of his or her constituents and how best to solve those needs,” Wiley maintained. “Commissioners can develop an overall plan for road improvements and work to accomplish those goals as their road and bridge budget allows.”
On the flipside, the precinct system does have some disadvantages, according to Wiley. For example, on some occasions all precincts within one county may not be managed the same.
“Roads in one precinct may be in good condition, while roads in an adjoining precinct are in disrepair,” he explained. In addition, a commissioner may develop a long-term strategy for road improvement, only to have his or her successor totally ignore that approach.
In addition, most commissioners do not come into office with a road and bridge background, Wiley stated.
“Therefore, there is a learning curve, and roads could suffer during that period,” Wiley declared.
However, ultimately the precinct system also allows the commissioner to directly supervise the road and bridge staff, “providing opportunity for developing attitudes of professionalism and constituent customer service,” Wiley articulated. “The precinct system will keep a commissioner well-grounded in his or her precinct.”
The No. 1 complaint from commissioners who operate under the unit system is loss of control, Wiley shared.
“As far as the citizens are concerned, the commissioners still have the responsibility, but they no longer have the hands-on ability to solve road-related problems quickly,” Wiley reiterated. “The obvious key to success of the unit road system is having the right road engineer or administrator and a good communication system with each commissioner.”
In Nacogdoches County, the road administrator was hired by the court and voted on in open session, Williamson said. 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.”
Everett emphasized the importance of a positive relationship between the road administrator and the commissioners court.
“Open communication with the commissioners court during the planning of long-range goals and special projects is beneficial to keeping the court informed of the road department’s objectives,” Everett stressed. “During the budget process, with operation and maintenance, vehicle, equipment, and fuel costs in an upward trend, presenting a well-planned budget to an informed court is necessary in achieving the needs of the road department.”