After a lengthy debate Tuesday, McLennan County commissioners voted 3-2 to move forward with hiring a consultant to determine the best system to manage roads.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell and Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson attempted to hold off a vote on issuing a request for proposal for consultants but found themselves in the minority. The duo cited a need for more deliberation, while Snell emphasized that hiring a consultant would waste money when the county could do its own research.

A consultant would review the types of road systems a county can have, compare with counties of similar population, road mileage and budget and propose a system for McLennan County. The county now uses a precinct-based system, in which each commissioner manages the roads and bridges in the area that elected him.

State law also allows for superintendent systems and unit road systems. In both cases, one person oversees road work countywide instead of commissioners. However, a unit road system requires a petition signed by voters to be filed with the court to prompt an election.

Commissioners want a consultant to study the fiscal impact of any recommended changes before they adopt a fiscal year 2017 budget, which starts Oct. 1. The court starts budget discussions in June.

County Judge Scott Felton in November first started discussing a move toward the unified road-and-bridge department in an effort to save money and take politics out of road work. Felton is the sole member of the court who does not oversee an individual road and bridge department.

Snell said any move away from a precinct-based road system puts voters at a disadvantage because they don’t have a voice on who is hired or fired through an election if they are unhappy with work done in the precinct.

Snell said Tuesday that at the Feb. 21 meeting, a resolution was placed on the court’s agenda with no prior discussion that would change the way the county operates. Then, it was almost 3 p.m. the day before the last meeting when commissioners received the 10-page consultant RFP for the first time, Snell said.

“I couldn’t find in court records where we talked about the proposal or given (Purchasing Director Ken Bass’) office approval to work on said proposal,” Snell said.

“That’s what we’re doing right now,” Felton responded.

Snell asked how Bass knew how to phrase the proposal with no input from commissioners.

“That’s his job, is to know how to write proposals,” Felton said.

Felton told Snell if he wanted to change the proposal or vote against it, he was welcome to.

Snell reiterated his concern in hiring a consultant to review data. He said county staff could evaluate the different road systems and compare data to similar-sized counties.

Gibson then added he would like more time to review options.

Felton said the point of the RFP is to allow a third-party expert to present unbiased information to allow the court to determine the best course of action.

“We don’t deliberate enough,” Gibson said.

“I don’t agree with that,” Felton replied.

“I don’t agree with you,” Gibson said.

Snell asked why the county would spend time putting together an RFP and spend money to hire a consultant when those funds could be put to better use.

“Are you an engineer, commissioner?” Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said.

“No, but I can do research,” Snell said.

Snell then gave a seven-slide presentation comparing other counties’ road systems to McLennan County’s system. Snell said 155 counties in Texas use the same system as McLennan County, and 68 use the unit road system.

Felton reminded commissioners that at the last meeting, two weeks ago, he asked any commissioner with questions or concerns to present those before Tuesday’s meeting but had not heard from anyone.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said since he took office, residents have asked why the county has not moved to a unit road system. The topic comes up every year, and the county needs to make a decision and then let it be, Perry said.

Felton said in the five years he has served on the court, he has heard commissioners say, “I’m not interested in doing a lot (of road work) in that area because I didn’t get a lot of votes there.”

“That’s the biggest thing against doing it the way we’re doing it right now,” Felton said. “The cost of that RFP could be nothing compared to the savings we could potentially have over a long period of time.”

In December, commissioners updated the job description for county engineer. They are looking to fill the vacancy left by County Engineer Steve Hendrick, who retired at the end of the year. The new job description asks for candidates who have experience with a unit road system.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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