Growing population taxes roads department

Bureau director pleads for equipment, workers

April 02, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The director of the Carroll County Bureau of Roads Operations began his budget appeal to the county commissioners last week with a little whimsy, but quickly added sobering statistics to the discussion.

"Let me share my view of the road ahead," Director Benton Watson said.

Unless more projects are funded, more workers hired and more equipment bought, Watson said, roads could get bumpy.

"On any county road out there, you can find new homes," Watson said yesterday in his office at the county maintenance shop where he has worked for 32 years. "Every road is feeling the impact of growth, and our department is feeling that."

In the past decade, Carroll's population has grown by about 40,000. The new homes have meant more than 80 additional miles of roads - nearly all in residential subdivisions.

"In 1990, we had 884 miles of roads to maintain," Watson said. "In 2004, we have more than 967, and all those roads are lined with homes."

The new residents demand more from the roads department. Watson's staff handled 1,360 service calls in 2002 and nearly twice that number last year.

"We have had a wet year with more drainage problems, and that means more calls," Watson said. "We respond to every call, but that takes time away from other work."

Even the number of deer on the roads has increased. Crews picked up more than 500 carcasses last year.

Despite the growing demand for service, the county has not increased the roads department staff or added equipment in more than 14 years. The department still has 102 employees and 42 dump trucks. Although the county is coping with a tight budget, Watson said he needed to make his pitch.

"I knew going in there were budget problems, but I wanted to point out the shortfalls," Watson said yesterday. "I know there are lots of demands on the county, but the commissioners need to know the problems that exist. There is no reason to panic, but we should be concerned."

The numbers showed that road construction and repairs are not keeping up with growth, said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

For Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, the road situation was another argument for a transfer tax, which the county's legislative delegation refused to support this year. The tax on home sales would generate about $5 million a year.

"We want to catch up and keep up, but we can't catch up because we don't have funding sources we identified with the transfer tax," Minnich said.

In an ideal situation, Watson said, he could use three more road crews, each with eight workers "to do the daily work and to get caught up." He would like another dozen dump trucks, which cost about $105,000 each. He knows those requests are wishful thinking.

Although the recommended road budget for fiscal year 2005 is expected to grow about 3 percent to $5.5 million, the increase is devoted to personnel expenses. The bureau's operating costs for next fiscal year will remain about the same at $1.8 million, according to the county's budget recommendation.

"While we are putting millions into the budget, it still may not be enough to keep roads up to the quality we would like," said Ted Zaleski, the county's director of management and budget. "We have to begin deciding what levels of service we are willing to live with. And if we can't fund those, what are we willing to give up?"

The lack of manpower and money meant crews did not trim trees that were scheduled for pruning this winter along 60 roads. The shortages meant that the county had to hire private contractors to help clear the roads of snow and ice. Without a budget increase, the county won't build a salt storage shed in Eldersburg and probably will not pave any of the 93 miles of gravel roads.

"It's easy to say `Don't let the budget grow,'" Zaleski said. "But what consequences are you willing to live with by not letting the budget grow?"

Watson's statistics "illustrate that you can't go from today into tomorrow without expanding government and adding services," Minnich said.

Watson is preparing a two-year roads evaluation for the commissioners.

Crews checked all the roads for condition, surface and drainage. The study also looked at traffic counts.

The research will show "a lot of streets in need of repairs, and probably the majority of those are drainage problems," Watson said.

Water is detrimental to the roads. The above-average rainfall and persistent frosts since the fall have "pushed many roads out of shape," Watson said.

Repairs are imperative to maintain drainage and road quality, he said.

"We will be patching all summer," he said. "It is cheaper to keep good roads in good condition rather than wait until they have to be repaired."

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