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Road kill

Randy Crawford is out. The county road and bridge superintendent resigned at Monday’s commission meeting, effective Friday, to accept an offer in private industry.

Some folks in the county have been calling for his head since the muddy roads debacle in December, while others joined the chorus with the May deluge. When folks are frustrated, they look for targets, and for road woes, no one wore a bigger bull’s eye than Crawford.

Citizens have the right to complain about government services, and for the past 10 months, they’ve been fully exercising that right relative to road conditions and how Crawford’s department has been dealing with them.

Rabble-rousers might be glad about Crawford’s decision, but none should be patting themselves on the back for engineering his departure, because they didn’t. The barrage of arrows stung and rankled, but they didn’t kill.

What ultimately did in Crawford was government, pure and simple.

Crawford knew what needed to be done to actually fix road and bridge problems for the long haul, not just patch things over, and he knew what he needed to do it.

Government couldn’t give him what he needed, and in fact took away some of what he needed just to keep up. Government tried to tell him how to do his job, often delving into minutia and effectively discounting his expertise, and that took its toll as well. Government subjected him to the games of grantsmanship, which in essence makes people have to plan twice: What will we do if we get the money, and what will we do if we don’t? Government didn’t allow him to hire workers at wages comparable to private industry, creating turnover and recruiting issues.

That’s not to say everything was perfect with the road and bridge department apart from resource issues, because it wasn’t. There was internal friction and resistance to change. There were challenges in balancing priorities and allocating resources. With or without Crawford, there’s no reason to expect those to go away any time soon.

But I’m relatively certain Crawford’s undoing was government. There were important things to do, and he couldn’t do them, not in ways that were fast enough or satisfactory enough for what he believed. Government and Crawford weren’t the right fit, and he made the smart move to go someplace that will hopefully suit him better.

Crawford’s departure changes little. Government remains, both the source of the problem and the only hope for a fix.

There was a time years ago when commissioners could have looked well into the future and started planning to avoid the problems facing the current commission. Roads and bridges have predictable life spans that are much longer than election cycles, so pandering to the “no new taxes” mantra when things were better was easy. But resources have dwindled to the point where the necessary tax hike to fix and maintain the current system is far too large for either politicians or constituents to stomach.

And so the current commission has some hard choices ahead of it, beginning with Crawford’s replacement.

Commissioners would do well to cast the net wide for a new road and bridge superintendent, one with hands-on road and bridge experience as well as good management skills. Fresh eyes bring fresh ideas, and elevating someone from within comes with potential pitfalls the county doesn’t need right now. If commissioners do choose a local candidate, they should be prepared to deal with any fallout quickly and firmly.

And if the right person costs more to hire, that deserves serious consideration. The only “what’s fair” consideration that matters is what’s fair to county taxpayers and those that use the roads. The sky is not the limit, but neither is the ground.

Commissioners are likely going to have to abandon some roads and bridges. Some farmers and families will be inconvenienced, but if anything is clear from recent problems, it’s that the county can’t afford all the roads it has.

Government’s primary way of raising money is through taxes, and commissioners need to get out of the mindset that they’re doing taxpayers a favor by holding the line. That’s the mindset that got us in the fix we’re in. It’s not a popular choice, and it would be a hard sell, but if people want to have acceptable roads in the years ahead, they’re going to have to chip in more to have them.

I haven’t spent a single day envying commissioners for their jobs, nor will I. Problems remain, and they’re the ones tasked with hard choices. Perhaps they’ll find options other than what I’ve mentioned, and if so, hurrah for them.

But unless something else changes, the next road and bridge superintendent is going to be in the same fix Randy Crawford was, and so will we.

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 8, 2015

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