This month, County Progress asked a road expert to explain the benefits of the Precinct Road System. Next month, we will give equal space to a discussion on the plus side of the Unit Road System.
The precinct road maintenance system has been the service backbone in many counties for generations. An estimated 75 percent of Texas counties continue to operate under the individual precinct maintenance authority and for good reasons.
First to be defined in the Texas Local Government under the responsibilities of commissioners court is the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges within the county. In fact, back in the old days, citizens would refer to their commissioner as the “road commissioner.” Understandably, people would equate a commissioner with roads, all in the same breath. Since it is the commissioners’ responsibility to look after road maintenance in their respective precincts, what better way to demonstrate this authority than by hands-on supervision?
I have been a county commissioner for 16 years now and can attest accurately that eight out of 10 calls I receive 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. 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.
Under the unit road system, this responsibility is delegated to an appointed road administrator who is but an extension of the commissioners court. In a perfect world the unit system can provide needed services successfully; however, politics and logistics often disrupt efficiency. The road administrator works for all the commissioners; sometimes his or her scheduling practices do not sit well with some of the bosses, and political bickering can result. Also, with the growing cost of fuel biting into county budgets all across the state, strategically located precinct maintenance operations offer quick response time based on a shorter travel distance to a job site.
The unit system purports savings by consolidating four maintenance facilities into one central location, thus reducing utility and building maintenance costs. Conversely, dispatching crews from one location to all parts of the county vastly increases fuel costs and cuts down on actual work because of the extensive commute time. Job requests come in all forms and sizes, from major road rehab work to a small pothole in front of grandma’s house.
A precinct operation can be more efficient and timely in its service delivery on smaller projects. I do not think that a maintenance supervisor should overlook or put off a job simply because it is small in scope. Every taxpayer request is important. Maintaining four precinct facilities also provides convenient access to local citizens who need to come by the yard and personally discuss their needs.
Some taxpayers might complain that the precincts have too much of the same type of equipment, and the county could save money by reducing the number of machines needed and combining them into one central operation. I can assure you that after a summer rain, every resident of a rural county will expect their road to be graded the next day; by having fewer motor graders available, the likelihood of every road in the county being graded in a timely fashion is slim.
The only way that the unit system can be more cost effective is by reduction of the workforce and equipment. Less people and fewer machines translate into less work accomplished on any given day. Unit system advocates promote the fact that a central operation can deploy a greater amount of manpower and assets to one particular project than individual precinct operations are capable of mustering. While this may be true, there is no rule that prohibits precinct road system operations from combining resources and working together to complete a project in any one part of the county. For example, this year the Wharton County Commissioners Court purchased asphalt-paving equipment to resurface our roads. We will all share this equipment, and the paving crew is comprised of employees from all four precincts. We are currently paving roads in all parts of the county. This clearly illustrates that a precinct system can merge capabilities as well; the only requirement needed is a group of commissioners who can work together for the common good of the county and its citizens.
Admittedly, in large urban counties where incorporated cities almost overlap one another, the unincorporated portions of a county can become fragmented and isolated. This can hinder a precinct system’s ability to be as responsive as it would normally be. A unit system in this environment would fare no better but may be an option. In a large, essentially rural county, where a majority of its citizens rely on the county for needed services, a precinct road maintenance system offers the distinct advantage of fast, efficient service, led by your friendly elected commissioner.
In summary, the precinct system offers residents direct accountability from their elected official on maintenance issues and affords the commissioner the opportunity to display the competent leadership and management expertise the voters can rely on.
By Wharton County Commissioner D.C. “Chris” King