(Ed. note: Three county commissioners voted yes on the resolution to request a Blount County referendum in the 2020 general election on converting from the district system to the unit system of road maintenance. Commissioners approving the resolution were Commissioners Dean Calvert, Mike Painter, and Nick Washburn. Below, they explain why they voted as they did. Both Calvert and Painter favor submitting the unit system question to public vote, and also favor the unit system itself. Washburn favors letting the people decide, though he says either system – unit or district – is acceptable to him; he thinks the unit system would be more efficient.
The next step is to send the resolution and accompanying unit system conversion proposal to the state legislative delegation to consider introducing a bill in the Legislature to authorize a referendum on the unit system for voters in Blount County. The draft language showing how the question would appear on the ballot, if the referendum is authorized, appears at the end of this article. Providing the Legislature authorizes the referendum, informational and Q&A meetings will be held around the county before the general election in 2020 to highlight the issues and implications involved in conversion.)
The Blount Countian (TBC): Why did you vote yes on the resolution to submit the question of converting to the unit system to county voters?
Calvert: Because we don’t have enough revenue in this county to keep up with the cost of road building. We need to be centralized, which the unit system will do, in order to get the most mileage out of the money we do have. We’re not wasteful, but the unit system will make us more efficient. If we don’t do something different in the next few years, road problems will have gotten so bad, and we’ll be so far behind, we can’t ever solve them.
Painter: This discussion over the unit system has been going on in the county for years– at least 30 years – and people on both sides are adamant. All we’re doing is finally giving people a chance to decide. We’ve been criticized as a commission for doing a lot of things wrong on this, but we haven’t done anything concrete at all – EXCEPT taken steps to let the people decide what they want. For years we’ve elected good people on the commission, but some of them had no road experience. A lot of my budget goes to repair things that were not fixed right in the first place.* And it takes time – as much as two years – for a new commissioner to really get good at this job. The unit system will change all that. You’ll have a qualified engineer in charge of the entire road program in the county and you’ll have continuity over time, instead of changes in approach from one commissioner to the next, and from one term to the next.
Washburn: I voted for the resolution in order to let the people decide. I’m not necessarily for or against the unit system. I do think it will be more efficient, with one centralized head (Ed. the county engineer) running things. It will be more efficient than with four different guys running it. I guess I would tend to be more for it than not. But I don’t have to pick a side. I can work with either system. I figure you can’t go wrong to let the people vote. If you don’t like the unit system, don’t get mad. Just vote NO.
TBC: What would you identify as the main strengths of the unit system, compared to the district system?
Calvert: Continuity. Consolidation. Centralization. Organization. Systemization. Unified management. And it takes the politics out of road and bridge building and maintenance.**
Painter: The unit system will be operated by an engineer trained in road and bridge construction methods. There will be continuity over election cycles so leadership will be continuous, not be brand new and learning on the job. Consolidation of equipment will mean equipment spending, purchase, and maintenance money will be spent more efficiently. We’ll have a fleet plan to schedule purchase, maintenance, and replacement of equipment, just like we do for paving roads.
Washburn: Well, I said it would be more efficient, and I’ll give you some examples. Like, if we have severe weather, say like flooding or wind damage and one district was hit hard, the entire county road crew could be mobilized and help clear storm damage quickly, whereas now, maybe another district helps out sometimes, but it could be better, more coordinated. Also, you could standardize certain things like pipe installation under roads. Until recently, the four districts were doing it four different ways, until the county engineer came up with a common procedure. We implemented it and now we’re all doing it the same way. Before the new procedure, we had an instance of a pipe installed to drain contrary to the flow of the stream – like installed where the water would have to drain uphill – probably not going to work. And you take paving a road: if you do it right, it’ll last eight years or more. If you don’t it may last two or three.
TBC: Will converting to the unit system eliminate the need for more revenue to adequately maintain the roads?
Calvert: We’re facing the most difficult time of our lives with road maintenance versus road revenue. The people of our county seem to be taxed to death, and I agree. Throwing money at problems does not solve our road issues, but the road issues remain and are getting worse. So what do we do? Implement the unit system with its centralization and long-term planning. When we’re operating as efficiently as humanly possible, then assess how much more revenue we need at that point, when we can make a strong case that we simply can’t do any more without more money.
Painter: We do need more revenue. It’s our main problem. Even if we get the unit system and become as efficient as possible, we’re still going to have to address the revenue issue in the future.
Washburn: No, it won’t eliminate the need for more revenue, but by being more efficient, and helping us get the maximum benefit of the revenue we do have, the unit system will reduce the amount of new revenue that will be needed.
TBC: Do you or any other members of the commission have anything to gain personally from conversion to the unit system?
Calvert: Yes. My family does. They will be able to ride on good roads when I’m dead and gone. If we don’t go to the unit system, they’re gonna be driving on dirt.
Painter: (Puzzling) No, I can’t think how anybody on the commission would benefit personally.
Washburn: I don’t think any of us stand to benefit. There’s no personal benefit.
TBC: What do Blount County citizens stand to benefit by converting to the unit system?
Calvert: I think of citizens same as I do my family. The people put me in office and they help pay my livelihood. And they’ll have the same good roads to drive on as my own family.
Painter: My kids and grandkids will benefit from better roads, just like everybody else.
Washburn: Better roads. More time to supervise and improve other county operations (when commissioners no longer have full-time road responsibility). Better response during severe weather.
TBC: What’s the one thing you most want voters to remember when and if they get to cast a vote on the unit system?
Calvert: To fix the roads in Blount County, we’ve got to get centralized and organized. Until we do we won’t be getting our full money’s worth. This will make government more efficient.
Painter: Fifty counties in Alabama have gone to the unit system, and the reason is, it provides more efficient use of the revenues we have. I’ve never heard of any unit system county going back to the district system, and that’s why – efficiency.
Washburn: If you like the district system – the way things are now – vote NO. If you think improvements need to be made, vote YES for the unit system. It’s not as complicated as everybody is making it.
Proposed wording of unit system ballot proposition
“Do you favor the adoption of the Blount County Efficiency in Government Act, act number ___________ of the 2019 regular session of the Alabama State Legislature, that would transition the Blount County Commission from the district system of county government with full-time commissioners to the unit system of county government with part-time commissioners, providing that county road maintenance and construction be managed by a professional engineer and providing for a full-time elected county commission chairperson?”
*Ed. note: All commissioners are reluctant to criticize other commissioners – even indirectly – as Painter was here. If fact, he asked that this comment not be used. (He reluctantly agreed on later appeal.) But the observation itself is practically universal, and in fact is one of the major realities that the unit system will address. It provides expertise as to best road maintenance/ building techniques and practices, uniformity of application across districts, and continuity over time – three of the greatest weaknesses of the district system, if informed observers are to be credited.
**Ed. note: Calvert’s answer signifies a reality for which the facts are not in evidence, requiring further explanation. “Politics” in this sense refers to rapid response to citizen needs and what might be termed voter “grooming.” For example, a citizen calls wanting a road-related problem fixed. The commissioner sends somebody out immediately to fix it. The citizen is satisfied, perhaps even grateful, and the commissioner gains or cements a vote, which counts toward re-election. It happens frequently under the district system. It provides good service to citizens but costs more money and torpedoes efficiency.
Under the unit system, complaints will be handled in an organized and efficient manner, with perhaps even fewer falling through the cracks. Bad news: it may not match the district system at its best for purely rapid response to requests for individual assistance. Good news: what it loses in rapid response, it will more than make up in efficiency of operations. Another way of viewing it: with the district system, citizens may get faster response, but pay for it in terms of loss of efficiency, and ultimately, the need for more money with no corresponding increase in miles of road fixed. With the unit system, more miles of roads will get repaved, potholed, maintained, and otherwise fixed. And they’ll tend to last longer, due to the consistent use of state-of-the-art methods and procedures.