By Mary Drier
and Tom Gilchrist
CARO — Robert “Bob” Worth, who has expressed his concerns about Tuscola County Road Commission operations to its board on and off for several months, took his complaints to the county commissioners this week.
“I can’t see why they have to pay out over $44,000 in ‘longevity bonuses’ when they complain they don’t have enough money to fix roads, do roadside mowing, can’t cut dead trees over the roads while they push trees and limbs into the ditch, and can’t afford to cut brush back from roadways for safety. Instead of spending money on bonuses — for jobs that already pay well — they should be cutting back costs,” said Worth who is a former Millington Township supervisor and a current trustee. “They allow multiple employees to take county vehicles home. Who pays for that gas? And, the pension fund is in arrears over $1.5 million.
“I feel what they are doing is wrong. They are not serving the residents of the county to (the best of) their ability.”
Commissioner Matt Bierlein also had an issue with longevity bonuses and items on the agenda that were skipped when he attended the Dec. 19, 2013 road meeting where a sketchy, one-page, summary of the 2014 budget was presented.
Items skipped at that meeting were “further discussion regarding 2014 wages,” and “further discussion regarding M.E.R.S (Municipal Employees’ Retirement System). (See related sidebar on A3)
“They said there was no wage increase and left it at that. They skipped over two items saying the agenda / meeting was long, and would take it up at the next meeting… I’d say mostly because there were several people there,” surmised Bierlein about the skipped items.
The meeting started at 8 a.m. and ended at 9:20 a.m. with a Christmas lunch at noon.
Although commissioners are concerned about Worth’s complaints as well as other complaints they have received from residents about the road commission, there isn’t much they can do because the road commission is an autonomous (self-governing) board.
“There has been long-standing complaints about the road commission. I share your concerns. If their employees get the private use of a county vehicle than the (Prosecutor) Mark Reene, (health officer) Gretchen (Tenbusch) and others could claim the same. I don’t think their private use of a county vehicle falls under public preview as a necessity. It’s out of step with the economic times,” said Bardwell. “I sense there are check and balance issues there that aren’t working as well as we intended.
“It would seem longevity bonuses are out of step in this time of cuts.”
According to Commissioner Roger Allen, he checked with Bay County’s Road Commission on those issues.
“They pay longevity bonuses also. Some staff use (county) vehicles and their mileage is reported on their W-2. If that’s (reported) done here, I feel better about it,” said Allen, who is a liaison to the road commission.
In checking with the Huron County Road Commission, some get a longevity pay also, and the foremen and superintendent of roads get a road allowance. At the Sanilac County Road Commission, there is no longevity pay is given or vehicle provided, but a gas allowance is.
“In the (road commission) meetings I’ve been able to get to, I don’t seen checks and balances, or much interest for concerns that are brought to them,” said Commissioner Craig Kirkpatrick who has tried unsuccessfully to have the road board address the issue of dead ash trees over roadways.
Because the road commission is a self-governing board, the county commissioners have an “arm’s length relationship” with them, explained Bardwell.
“We are only a fiduciary arm to them. As Craig stated, the lack of checks and balances has been there for many years,” said Bardwell. “There is very little that we can do. If people are unhappy, they can change the people who represent when voting.”
The road commission is a five-member board. Initially, it was a three-member board appointed by the board of commissioners. County commissioners decided two years ago to expand the road board to five members with stagger expiring terms. This six-year the seat of road commission Chair Jack Laurie, expires.
Other road commission structure options include, road commission districts set up the same way that county commission districts are, or eliminating the road commission board and brining its operation under the county commissioners control.
“When we changed to having the (road commission) board elected rather than appointed by us and expanded to five members, we thought that would resolved some of the issues… In hindsight, we are wishing we hadn’t. There are other options,” said Bardwell. “Maybe it is time we brought the road commission under our control. Others in the state have done this. There should be a cost savings there. We should think about this.”
After hearing numerous complaints, county commissioners decided to ask road commission officials to attend a meeting to discuss concerns, and to also explore taking over road commission operations, which would require a county-wide vote.
Mary Drier is a staff writer for the Tuscola County Advertiser. She can be reached at email@example.com.