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  • Last modified 1148 days ago (July 30, 2015)

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Off to a rocky start

We’d love to take the high road and proudly proclaim that Marion County is plowing full speed ahead toward a viable long-term solution to its road problems.

While it’s true that old policies, charitably characterized as robbing Peter (gravel and dirt roads) to pay Paul (paved roads), seem to have been abandoned, what appears to have replaced them is a policy of robbing Paul to pay Peter.

Yes, county crews will be working two extra hours a day for the foreseeable future to address urgent problems, but the long-term consequence is likely to be accumulation of a huge debt in the form of compensatory time off, paid at 11/2 hours in the future for each hour worked today.

Forcing crews to go home and reclaim their “comp” time during rainy weather or when equipment is being maintained might fill a few of the managerial potholes created, but the county still isn’t sure it can do that, and bureaucracies being what they are, it’s unlikely crews or supervisors will eagerly accept the type of uncertain work schedule that has led many a factory to unionize. Even if they do, because reassignments will be banned, paving will now suffer the same level of neglect that unpaved roads have in recent months.

Widespread popular perception is that problems with road maintenance stem from supervisors not trusting employees. While commissioners paid lip service Monday to the notion that workers are trusted and valued, much of their three-hour brainstorming session involved flapping their lips about whether workers were abusing half-hour unpaid lunches and about bringing in high-tech equipment to spy on them to make sure they have done the work they claim.

There’s nothing wrong with spending money — the lowest estimate we could find was more than $5,000 a year — to log every movement of every county grader via GPS. In fact, it might be a great public relations tactic, as it has been elsewhere, to create a website allowing taxpayers to view every grader movement, convincing them progress is being made. But the symbolism to crews is stark. No longer will the county pull them off assigned areas to do other work, but it’s going to monitor their every movement as if they were work-release prisoners.

What’s missing — and residents were clear in pointing this out at their unprecedented meeting last week — is the old spirit that each grader operator was almost solely responsible for a particular region and, as a result, could take justifiable pride — or criticism — for how well he did his job. Getting workers invested in the quality of their work is the most important goal the county could establish. Talk of lunch-hour abuse, padded paychecks on rain days, and GPS monitoring works against this.

That’s only part of the problem, however. Agreeing what needs to be done is crucial. On that score, the county seems confused at best. Roads chief Randy Crawford has endured weeks of public vilification with almost heroic stoicism. Truth is, he seems to know the ins and outs of road building and maintenance as well as anyone. Yet he couldn’t get a commitment from commissioners Monday on whether the practice of windrowing excess gravel along sides of roads is good or bad. Evidence seems to side with him that, in many cases, it’s no longer the thing to do. But that’s not the point. The point is that he felt it necessary to obtain commissioner approval lest his employees ignore him or run to sympatheic commissioners with their concerns.

Brainstorming is supposed to be about coming up with ideas to break logjams. How about this one? If crew members or commissioners disagree on best practices, try each different practice for a set period in separate districts, then evaluate which worked best. This engages and energizes everyone, restores pride of ownership, and ensure basing future decisions not on feelings but facts.

Others have complained about Crawford’s management style. We can’t evaluate that. Every discussion of such issues, and of questions of employee insubordination, has been conducted behind closed doors, using a “personnel matters” loophole intended to protect private matter, not to hide how well public employees serve the public that pays them. We will say that the lack of organized communication within his office and his lack of understanding whether his employees were eligible for overtime (they aren’t) were a bit shocking, but these could be attributable as much to persistent micromanaging from above as they are to shortcomings in his own managerial skills.

Even this isn’t enough to solve the county’s long-term problems, however. Ultimately, there’s only one pea and three cups is the county’s budgetary game of Thimblerig. Until the county stops using its total road mileage as an excuse and actually addresses the issue, no amount of swiftly moving resources from one area to another will create anything more than temporary confidence — essentially, a con game.

With agricultural land paying only 18 percent of the cost of maintaining rural roads, it’s not viable to continue pushing the cost of maintenance onto taxes paid primarily by people who don’t directly benefit. Cries to keep taxes down, even if doing so cripples the rural transportation system, will put continual pressure on roads budgets — pressure that commissioners admitted they mistakenly bowed to.

What’s actually needed is an alternative method of financing rural roads and prioritizing those efforts so that those with the greatest need receive the greatest service — and, in all likelihood, pay the greatest bills. That’s what we had hoped to hear commissioners talk about on Monday. Instead, it was just more of the same.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 30, 2015

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