You get what you pay for


One rough ‘n ready measure of effectiveness of a county road maintenance program is miles of local roads – roads not maintained by the federal or state government – paved each year. For the last several years, Blount County has averaged paving roughly 50 miles per year, according to commissioners’ statements. This year, fewer than 10 miles will be paved. With the economy’s prospects still uncertain, next year could be no better than this one. Or it could be worse.

Why? The quick answer is that the cost of paving materials has tripled since 2004. A mile of tar and gravel in 2004 cost $7500. A mile of tar and gravel today costs over $20,000. (Adding other costs – pipe replacement, reclaiming, fuel, labor, and so on can double the overall cost.) District budgets have increased by an average of about 38 percent during that same period of time. Repeating: materials costs alone have tripled, road budgets have increased by something over a third. Right there’s a big part of the reason that miles paved have dramatically decreased.

Expectations. In the last couple of years, there’s been an observable uptick in the number of citizens appearing at the commission work session to complain about their roads. Roughly 300 miles of dirt roads remain in the county. People are more impatient than ever before to have them paved. Many complaints have to do with potholes. With over 700 miles of paved roads, potholes are a major concern. Unfilled potholes are ruining cars through wear and tear. (I know; I cracked a transmission housing in one last year. I’m $500 wiser – and poorer – as a result.) A patchwork of filled potholes makes the roads rough to ride on. Roads are too narrow for the traffic they bear. Tar and gravel roads – even sound ones – are sometimes considered inadequate nowadays.

Paved vs. really

One commissioner tells the story of a woman who called to complain about her road not being paved. “You’re mistaken, ma’am. It was just repaved two months ago,” the commissioner answered. “I mean really
paved with asphalt,”
the irate caller said. Tar and gravel doesn’t count as real pavement for some folks any more.

In the ultimate irony, often when a commissioner paves a road in his district, he gets precious few thank-you calls from the people whose road got paved – but a landslide of complaints from others whose roads – didn’t. (With a few complaints thrown in from residents who didn’t want their road paved – because people drive faster on good roads than on bad ones.)

Rising expectations versus declining means. It’s a classic formula for conflict – in this case in the form of an increasing barrage of citizen complaints. County commissioners are on the front line of the battle to keep up the roads, and are thus the main target of the barrage. It’s a significant stress generator. If you don’t believe it, ask ’em. Or watch them and listen to them in commission meetings. They’re feeling it.

What are the prospects for improvement? When are the necessary funds to resume steadily paving county roads going to become available? There are several partial answers to that, none of which are answers you want to hear. But here they are anyway, in no particular order.

Money available to fix county roads will increase when paving material costs decrease. They’ve actually gone down somewhat since the $4-per-gallon of-gas era of last year. Will they decrease even further, dramatically increasing the number of miles that can be paved? What do you think?

Money for county roads will increase when the economy stabilizes and when gas and sales tax collections recover to, say, early 2008 levels. Current collections are off about 4 percent from comparable levels last year. Will that be enough to resume paving 50 miles of local roads a year at $40,000 plus per mile? That’s a cool two million dollars worth of paving a year – not counting asphalt roads – the really expensive ones. Do you think that 4 percent tax proceeds recovery – if it occurs – will do the trick?

Money for roads will increase as the county develops economically with more people buying more gas – significantly increasing tax revenues available to the county to plow into road improvement. Reckon that’ll help next year? The year after? The year after that? When then? And how many miles can you pave with the increase each year? Will that be satisfactory?

Money for roads will increase when the state Legislature realizes rural county road infrastructure has deteriorated dangerously over the last two decades and passes a comprehensive statewide bond issue to aid counties in restoring local roads. What do you make the probabilities of relief from that source to be? What year do you expect it? Are you willing to roll the dice, wait it out, and hope for the best? From the state Legislature?

Money for county roads will increase when the county administration – or county citizens themselves – take matters into their own hands and make the money available through some type of local initiative – bond issue or tax levy being the two measures that occur offhand. It’s been done before, with a gas and sales tax levy in the early 1990s, and a bond issue a few years later. A monument “Here Lies Blount County” resulted from the tax levy. The county – and both school systems – are still benefiting from those annual proceeds. Do you want to settle for the county road program you’ve got? Or do you want to pay more and get more? You get what you pay for: it’s a tired, old cliche. But they still keep score the same way they always did, don’t they?

For those who believe – in spite of an unprecedented run of six years of clean county audits performed by the state Department of Revenue – that waste and inefficiency are eating up taxpayer dollars and hamstringing the road repair program – do you really believe there’s enough saving to be realized by reorganizing the government and/or plugging spending leaks to get the paving program back to 50 miles a year? Are the state auditors missing something? Do we need a better audit? Can an audit report be cleaner than clean?

Or is it really as simple as the old cliche suggests? You get what you pay for. And its obverse: you don’t
get what you don’t
pay for. Living gracefully with what you’ve got is an acceptable outcome, after all. We all do it every day in our personal lives. So, don’t run hollering to your friends that the newspaper has come out in favor of increasing taxes. You can tell ’em the newspaper has served up a helping of food for thought – and for civic discourse.