Who paves the county roads?

The path to a decision

By The Mercury

It is an interesting and perfectly reasonable debate to have — as was had at Thursday’s Riley County Commission meeting — whether the county itself or private contractors ought to be doing road-paving projects.

The county has previously bid such projects out. There is agreement that’s what was generally done in the aftermath of passage of the 2002 sales tax. But Leon Hobson, the county’s professional expert in this area, is proposing a change in that assumption as proceeds of the 2012 tax are applied to new projects. He has suggested that county officials look at doing the work in-house.

Based on their reactions Thursday, commissioners Ron Wells and Bob Boyd appear to disagree with that suggestion, presuming that the work ought to continue be done by private firms unless compelling evidence exists to change that equation. At least part of their argument rests on the notion that private business would be harmed by government performing the tasks.

Absent specific cost data, it is impossible to determine which side’s position makes more sense, which is why commissioners forestalled a decision. But it is possible to lay down one or two markers and guidelines.

Here’s the clearest marker. If the county has the personnel to do the work, and if the work can be done by those personnel at a cost and skill level that is in line with the cost and skill level of going outside, then the work ought to be done in-house. There’s a simple reason for this: those county workers are being paid out of taxpayer dollars.

Part of the commissioners’ argument appears to be that if the work is farmed out, the county might not need to maintain as large a staff. Well, commissioners certainly have the right and responsibility to set the public works department’s budget, a power that tacitly allows them to set staffing levels. But in the context of whether inside or outside entities would do the road work, commissioners will have to cost-justify any decision to reduce public works staff. There may be other implications to that.

Any commitment to send the work outside would fairly be read as a commitment to reduce public works staff…and to do so without consequence to public service.

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