Legislation Introduced to Abolish Road Commissions
State Senators John Gleason and Jud Gilbert, and State Representatives Richard Hammel and David Robertson, have introduced legislation to abolish road commissions. While it may not come as a surprise that the County Road Association of Michigan opposes this legislation, the reasons deserve careful consideration.
The first road commissions were established in the 1890ís with the mission to provide reasonably safe and convenient travel for the people of Michigan. In the early 1900ís the County Road Law (Public Act 283 of 1909) was enacted and voters were allowed to create petitions requesting the creation of a County Road Commission. The current county road governance system in Michigan was created by a vote of the people. Senate Bills 269-270 and House Bills 4290-4291 would allow a County Board of Commissioners to reverse this decision simply by passing a resolution.
There have historically been certain county boards which have had difficult relationships with the county road commission. Legislation with statewide impact, however, should not be utilized to address political differences or local disagreements. The current legislation amounts to disenfranchisement of Michigan residents. An objective review of the arguments on both sides of this issue must consider accountability and accessibility, as well as potential cost savings.
Would abolishing road commissions increase accountability and accessibility?
County Boards currently have oversight over road commissioners in several areas. County boards determine if road commissioners are appointed or elected. If appointed, the county commissioners make the appointments. County commissions also set the salaries and benefits of the road commissioners.
Legislation was recently enacted allowing counties to expand road commissions from three to five members to better represent county residents, and to ensure increase accountability. Twenty counties have made the decision that additional road commissioners would benefit their county.
There is one important distinction between a county commissioner and a county road commissioner. A road commissioner has one interest- operating, maintaining and improving county roads and bridges. Available funds drive road commission operations, not political deals or decisions. It is also important to note that road commissions adhere to the same laws as county boards of commissions regarding open meetings act and other forms of public access.
Would abolishing road commissions save money?
The County Road Association of Michigan contends that there would be little if any savings by folding road commissions into county government, in fact, costs to counties could increase significantly.
In 2006, the average road commissionís net administrative expenses were less than 5.5 percent of total revenue. Administrative salaries and benefits are only a small portion of the total administrative overhead. Many road commissions are already operating below the bare minimum staff levels.
The majority of administrative expenses for road commissions are static costs (legal expenses, utilities, insurance, surety bonds, equipment rental, engineering supplies and services, and building maintenance and depreciation) which would not be reduced by this change. It is likely the only cost savings would be the salary and benefits of 3 to 5 part-time road commissioners. In contrast, there are several areas where costs to county government will increase.
With revenue sharing cuts experienced by counties in recent years, it is unlikely the current staff would be able to absorb the highly specialized tasks of road commission administrative employees. The Michigan Constitution requires transportation funds to be used solely for transportation purposes. If this legislation is approved, the state will audit to ensure a county government allocates the actual costs to administer road commission business. If mistakes are made in the way funding is allocated, the state will not hesitate to demand the funds be returned.
Counties would also be subject to a new form of liability if they absorb the road commission. Michigan law gives road commissions very limited government immunity. Currently, only road commissions can be sued for a legal defect causing injury or death to a person or property. Even if named, county government will typically be removed from any law suit regarding roads. If the county took over control of the road commission, this liability would fall solely on the shoulders of county government. This is a substantial concern as the legislature considers other legislation that could potentially increase liability costs to road commissions.
Michiganís 83 county road agencies (82 county road commissions and the Wayne County Department of Public Services) provide a valuable service to Michigan residents. As the debate continues it is important to consider the history and intent of Michigan residents who fought to create our local road governance system. We must not allow local political power struggles to disenfranchise Michigan voters.
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