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District vs. Unit System

You can express your opinion in the current debate over which system of government would best serve the citizens of Blount County: the current district system now in use, or the proposed unit system advocated by some, or a comparable system used in another state.

One of the central issues in the debate is how best to manage county road repair and improvement. Is it better to distribute authority to four elected district commissioners – the district system – keeping the function and its management close to the citizens served and subject to their will at the polls?

Or is it better to centralize operations under a hired professional road manager who carries out the road program county-wide – the unit system – losing direct accountability to the public, but saving money by reducing duplication and gaining overall uniformity and consistency under unified management?

A third system would resemble the unit system, but would provide for an elected professional road manager to head the centralized county highway department. It is not currently used anywhere in Alabama, but is common in Tennessee.

Go to the newspaper’s website, www.blount, and the poll appears in the lefthand column. If you want to comment on your vote afterwards, click the “View Vote” tab and then click on “Comment” at the bottom of the chart. Please don’t write a book.

To help you consider the matter, below are descriptions of the three systems under discussion.

The district system is the form in use currently in Blount County. Commissioners are elected for four-year terms for each of four districts in the county. They serve full time and are responsible for county road maintenance for their districts. They each live in the district they are elected to serve, have an office and work center there, and have sufficient equipment and personnel to handle daily road maintenance in the district.

Collectively, commissioners make management decisions regarding the finances and policies of the county, its departments, and personnel. The probate judge serves as commission chairman and is elected to a six-year term.

About a third of counties in the state operate on some form of the district system. Its greatest strength is said to be the direct access it provides citizens to an elected official who is directly accountable to them via the voting booth for the condition of local roads, as well as for all other aspects of county management.

The unit system is the form proposed as an alternative to the district system. It unifies county road and bridge maintenance on a countywide basis. Road equipment, rather than being dispersed to four district locations, is consolidated at a central location, eliminating some duplication.

Responsibility for road maintenance is assigned to a single road manager or superintendent hired for that purpose. The road manager reports to the county engineer in all Alabama counties currently using the unit system.

County commissioners are elected to manage the policies, financial affairs, departments, and personnel of the county. They serve part time and are paid at half the full-time salary rate. Normally, the probate judge and commission chairman job is not combined, and a full-time commission chairman is elected. About two-thirds of Alabama counties use some form of the unit system. Its greatest strength is said to be cost efficiency and consistency in road program management.

The modified unit system is a form of county organization set by state law for many counties in Tennessee. It is not referred to there as a unit system, but is similarly structured with part-time elected commissioners. It differs conspicuously from both Alabama systems in that responsibility for county road maintenance and construction is vested in a chief administrative officer (CAO), who may be elected. The CAO has oversight of a centralized county highway department, including engineering functions.

The CAO may be an appointed or elected position. The CAO must submit proof of qualifications, such as an engineering degree or proof of substantial supervisory experience in road construction.

Strengths would appear to be cost efficiency plus direct accountability to the public, if the CAO is elected. A possible weakness is ambiguous or perhaps conflicting assignment of ultimate authority for roads in counties with elected commissions. Lack of familiarity with the system by citizens and officials in Alabama makes reliable evaluation difficult. It is not used in this state, but possibly could be, given enabling legislation and a vote of the people.

Another important issue in the debate concerns the type of commissioners that tend to be associated with the two different systems. What kind of commissioners would you like to manage the county? To some extent, the type of system you choose determines the kind of commissioners you get.

It is said that the district system, with full-time commissioners and assigned road responsibility, produces commissioners with experience heavy in construction-related trades, but not necessarily rich in specialized management skills such as finance, marketing, personnel, quantitative methods and so on. District system commissioners, being full time, don’t hold other full-time jobs. Some are retired from former full-time jobs.

The unit system, with part time commissioners, is said to attract those whose skills are more widely distributed over a variety of management functions, often not including knowledge of road operations. Part-time commissioners often have other full-time jobs. Some are retired from former full-time jobs.

Think about it before you vote.