with poll: Expanding the Road Commission may not be the best idea
At a time when other counties are debating whether they should disband their Road Commissions, here in Washtenaw County, we are talking about expanding ours.
We understand the rationale behind the proposal to increase the number of road commissioners from three to five, we just don’t think this is the right time to be adding more people - and potentially, more cost - to an entity that some counties are asking if they can do without altogether.
The three road commissioners are appointed by the county Board of Commissioners, and oversee a $43.3 million agency that employs more than 130 people and maintains 1,647 miles of roads. Next month, the county board plans a public hearing on a proposal to add two more road commissioners.
The arguments for doing so are pragmatic in nature. Three can be an awkward number for a deliberative body, and that small number also can limit input. Adding more members could bring a new perspective on issues like better incorporating biking and walking paths into the road system.
On the other hand, if expanding the Road Commission ends up being a way to add more geographic representation, that could be a step backward, resulting in decisions that are driven by parochialism rather than what’s best for the county as a whole.
One minor concern about a three-person board is how it’s affected by the state’s Open Meetings Act, which requires board members to deliberate in public session whenever a majority is present. For two members to discuss an issue outside a meeting would violate the act because they represent a quorum. We strongly support the act, and believe the public’s business should be done in public, but even we can understand the practical problems posed here.
Still, considering all that, we don’t find an unusually strong case for expanding the Road Commission, particularly at time when the agency has reduced its staff by more than 20 positions and faces dwindling funds.
Under no circumstance could we support this idea if it costs the county more money that should be going to roads instead. Road commissioners are paid $10,500 and the actual cost per commissioner is closer to $20,000 a year when you add in things like travel and training. So adding two more road commissioners could increase that cost by $40,000.
Some county commissioners have suggested that if they increased the number of road commissioners, they could cut the rate of compensation so that having five members wouldn’t cost more than having three does now. That makes the concept more palatable. The pay levels for some elected and appointed county officials - not just here, but across Michigan - are hard to justify in the current economy anyway, especially considering that other people serve the public on bodies like school boards or municipal planning commissions for little or no compensation at all.
But there’s a bigger issue here as well. At a time when declining budgets are forcing government entities to streamline and economize, some counties are asking why they can’t do away with road commissioners and have that function absorbed by the county Board of Commissioners. Wayne County made that move back in the 1980s, but state law doesn’t allow most other counties to do the same.
There have been attempts to pass legislation giving all counties that choice, but those have languished in Lansing. While we don’t take a position on whether Road Commissioners should or shouldn’t be abolished, we think counties at least ought to have the right to decide for themselves.
Lacking that option, Washtenaw County commissioners find themselves tinkering instead with the size of the Road Commission and we don’t see that as the most productive use of their time. We have no particular bone to pick with the current road commissioners, and no particular reason to believe a different number of them would alter the quality or level of service that the public receives in any measurable way.
In recent years, the county has helped the Road Commission save money by providing human resources services to it. That’s the kind of efficiency that the public wants to see more of, and that’s where we’d rather see county commissioners focus their efforts. There have to be better ideas out there for improving the quality of roads and stretching public dollars than adding two more chairs to the Road Commission table.
(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the Editorial Board of AnnArbor.com.)