Count on county workers to keep roads safe
I was just about to complain about the heat this summer when our annual road salt contract crossed my desk. Between county government and municipalities that obtain their salt through the county’s contract, the order was about $1.2 million. Our record-setting heat has kept public works crews busy this summer repairing pavement “blow-ups.” It won’t be long, however, until snowplows appear on our trucks and winter highway operations begin. Keeping many area roads safe for the motoring public is the job of the county’s public works department.
The responsibility for road maintenance in Wisconsin falls on one of five jurisdictions. Cities, villages, towns, counties and the state each “own” roads and are responsible for their upkeep. If you look closely at the trucks doing the work, you can usually tell which unit of government they represent.
One question folks sometimes ask me is why county trucks maintain state roads like Wisconsin Highway 50 or the interstate. The state actually has an agreement with Walworth County, and most other counties, to maintain its highways. Each county that performs state work is reimbursed for the wages it pays its workers as well as for equipment used in the job. This arrangement, known as the routine maintenance agreement, has historically made sense for both parties. The state doesn’t have to hire thousands of highway workers and purchase a fleet of trucks. Counties, on the other hand, have been able to use revenues from the state work to offset the need to raise local tax dollars.
The routine maintenance agreement, however, has been a source of controversy in recent years. As the state deals with its own budget woes it has, in some cases, reduced the level of maintenance it requests counties to perform on its roads. Members of the public, accustomed to seeing county trucks perform this work, blame county officials when the grass isn’t mowed and garbage accumulates along the shoulders of roads. Counties, in turn, have threatened to not sign the routine maintenance agreement, fearing that they will be forced to spend local tax dollars on state roads if the legislature doesn’t appropriate enough money to do the job.
So far the state-county relationship has remained intact. In cases where the public’s safety could be compromised, the state has been finding funds to fix the problems. Taxpayers should keep in mind, however, that the frequency of mowing and trash collection on state highways is a state decision.
As a result of our agreement with Wisconsin, Walworth County workers take care of nearly 700 lane miles of state highways in addition to 451 lane miles of our own county roads. All of these miles are divided into 23 sections, known as “beats.” Each beat is the responsibility of an individual public works employee.
The salt that we recently ordered will be delivered yet this summer. We hope to start the winter season with about 39,000 tons stored in five sheds and domes located in Elkhorn, Darien and East Troy. After a particularly bad winter nearly wiped out our salt supply, we added a second dome to our public works yard in Elkhorn in 2009. That dome was badly damaged in a storm in 2011 but is back “online” now. Because this is Wisconsin, I won’t predict that we will never run out of salt. The additional 14,000 tons of storage added by the second dome will provide a little extra insurance against this possibility, however.
Roads aren’t the only infrastructure that the county has to worry about. In addition to 34 bridges, 23 acres of parking lots and 3.5 linear miles of sidewalks that serve county buildings need to be maintained, as well.
Walworth County recently lost a valued member of its public works team. Jerry Himebauch, a 19-year veteran of the department, died tragically in an accident last month while seal coating on County Highway J in the town of Troy. Jerry’s death underscores the dangers faced by our highway workers performing their jobs in traffic, around heavy equipment and in all weather conditions. Jerry dedicated his life to public safety. In addition to his work with the county, he served for more than 30 years as a volunteer firefighter on the Lyons Fire Department.
Because Jerry’s highway beat included Interstate 43, one of the motorists he kept safe was me. I can only imagine the number of late-night call-ins that Jerry received over the years and all of the holiday dinners cut short when he answered each call to plow snow. He loved his work and was very good at it. He will be sorely missed by his co-workers and friends in county government.
Keeping nearly 1,200 miles of highway safe is a big job. On nights that I don’t care to even step outside, county workers are driving heavy equipment, often in “white-out” conditions and on slick roads. You can help them by slowing down and giving our workers plenty of room to do their important work.