A few county leaders are eyeing a revamp of how McLennan County roads are handled, proposing a unified county road and bridge department.
A county employee would oversee the department, instead of the existing setup, in which elected county commissioners manage individual departments for their precincts.
County Judge Scott Felton and Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry are pursuing the change, which is still in the early stages of consideration. If they follow through, the shift to what is known as a “unit road” system would keep politics out of roadwork and could offer savings on equipment, Felton said.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said a unified department wouldn’t be as familiar with county roads as individual commissioners.
There are also logistical challenges that need to be carefully considered, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said.
One issue is that the Brazos River divides the county with only a handful of crossings, which could create problems if precinct equipment barns were consolidated, Jones said.
Felton proposed last week that his office work with the human resources office to revise the job description for the county engineer before hiring a replacement for County Engineer Steve Hendrick, who will retire Dec. 31 after more than 23 years with the county.
Despite differing initial reactions to the proposal, commissioners agree the change would be complex.
“It has political impacts as well as functional and efficiency impacts,” Felton said. “It could politically impact those commissioners relative to their constituents. All this is just a very cursory consideration to start doing further research to see if it would fit McLennan County.”
Felton said he is working with the county auditor’s office to determine the potential financial impact of the move. County leaders would then need to review the combined road and bridge equipment from all four precincts to look for overlaps and gaps, followed by prioritization of jobs, he said.
“I think the best way to go about it is don’t look at saving any money by cutting any personnel because you don’t know what you need until you get into it,” Felton said. “That could take several years, then use normal attrition, and not be a negative impact to an individual’s family.”
The head of the road department could be an engineer or a construction manager, someone who can see the big picture and follow through by managing people and processes, Felton said.
“What we have to look at is what would it take us to get there and is it worth the time and energy and effort to go ahead and make that transition,” Perry said.
Instead of four different precincts purchasing similar equipment across the county, a central department under a unit road system can ensure no unnecessary duplication, Perry said.
“Sometimes you find in some counties, folks like to buy a lot of road and equipment they don’t need,” he said.
After visiting with some across the state who have used the unit road system, he has learned switching from precinct-based isn’t an immediate money saver but a gradual one, Perry said.
“There’s a consolidation process that has to be done early that can incur some costs,” he said. “Some will tell you that it takes politics out of the equation. If someone has a beef with a commissioner, they don’t have to worry about their road being overlooked.”
Felton said he’s not sure what kind of buy-in commissioners will hear from constituents on the proposal.
“If someone has a very good commissioner and they can call them and get things done, they can still call that commissioner,” Felton said. “But then the commissioner comes to the court if necessary to make big decisions. All in all, I think all reports on roads would look alike, they wouldn’t be different per precinct. Right now, the only commissioner that provides a full precinct report is Commissioner Ben Perry.”
Perry said he’s not worried about losing any sense of power over the roads and bridges, because his foreman and crews are really the ones in charge now. Perry said his crews are far more knowledgeable about road maintenance than himself.
“My job is policy and budgeting,” he said. “There’s some power that’s lost there, and sometimes folks like to maintain that bit of power over what road gets fixed.”
Perry said the main concern is having a more balanced approach to buying equipment, surveying bridges and working to maintain roads throughout the county.
Jobs are not likely to be eliminated, he said.
Snell said a unit road system would be ideal for a small county, like Falls County.
“I just can’t see how they think it would ever work in McLennan County,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a can of worms.”
Hendrick, the county engineer, said the precinct-based system is more suitable for rural counties.
“Quite honestly, the precinct system is great for a very rural county, not an urban one,” he said. “One thing I think commissioners might now like is maybe having that level of control, if you will, over what gets done out there for his constituents.”
Hendrick said he’d bet that 90 percent of residents who live in Waco don’t know who their county commissioner is, but those outside city limits know exactly who their commissioner is and may even have their cellphone to call any time there’s a pothole.
Precinct boundaries would mean nothing for road work under a unit system, he said.
Bell County has used a unit road system since the 1940s, he said. Hill County tried a unit road system a few years back after voters got the measure on the ballot, but the move eventually failed and the county returned to a precinct-based system, he said.
Snell said a unit road system could mean consolidating precinct equipment barns that are currently spread throughout the county, but others said equipment storage would be a primary consideration in working out details of the move.
“I just have 25 percent of the county and I have three places we store equipment,” Snell said.
He said as he organizes work, the crews tend to start on one side of his precinct and work in a direction together across because the larger equipment is so difficult to move over long distances.
“Then you’re going to have one engineer try to assemble and assimilate the information that he’s getting from all the constituents in all four precincts, and I just don’t see that happening,” Snell said. “The engineers we have now don’t do anything on the road and bridge part much. They are working to keep the Heart of Texas coliseum roof from blowing off.”
Moving to a unit road system doesn’t mean loss of precinct barns, Felton said.
The county will still need locations in the more rural areas to store equipment.
Perry said the unit road system has proved to be efficient for many of the 67 Texas counties that use the method, including Coryell and Brazos counties.
“I think the court ought to have the opportunity to look at it and analyze it,” Felton said.
Combining precinct departments “chock-full of talent” could result in better work for the county, Felton said.
“They’re a great team individually, and they might be an even better team combined,” he said.
The court could decide to pursue a unit road system on its own, or residents could start a petition and get the measure on the ballot if enough signatures are collected.