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Road-grading over common sense

There’s no truth to the rumor that Marion County plans to capitalize on the sad state of its rural roads by advertising them as a chance for tourists to experience what travel was like on the original Santa Fe Trail.

What is true is that county commissioners once again are spending money faster than taxpayers can earn it.

The cost of living has risen only 0.8 percent this year, but county employees, who already get generous raises based on seniority, will be getting across-the-board 2.0 percent raises — 2½ times what most pensioners, private-sector employees, and employees of other agencies can expect.

Our Santa Claus commissioners also are stuffing the stockings of elected officials, awarding each of them a $7,500 annual raise, supposedly to bring their salaries closer to what are paid in similar counties — though we haven’t noticed a shortage of people willing to accept jobs here at their current rate of pay.

Maybe it’s because the county payroll is so huge — and county employees so notoriously likely to vote — that the courthouse has become a featherbed of staffing.

Take the ambulance service, for example. It’s an insult to the apparently ever-dwindling number of heroic, underpaid “volunteers” who staff the ambulances that the county, while tossing them a 50-cent raise, is wanting to replace its full-time ambulance billing clerk while at the same time buying a new system, costing as much as $20,000, to do much of the clerk’s work.

How much work are we talking about? In July, according to monitored dispatches, county ambulances made an average of 2.4 billable runs daily. Do the math. A full-time billing clerk could spend 2 hours 20 minutes creating each individual bill and still have time left over for leisurely lunches and coffee breaks. Project the number of bills out over a year, and a $20,000 system will add $22.65 in overhead to each bill.

That’s enough overhead to turn one head into wondering whether a similar system bought for the health department earlier this summer might have been able to do double-duty — or, for that matter, whether there might be money to save by combining the two related departments.

Contrast this to a request from the county’s weed and refuse department to use already budgeted money to convert a part-time position to full time. While commissioners eagerly accepted a glib explanation that the ambulance department would have “plenty of other things” for its clerk to do, it rejected a lengthy list of specific duties the weed and refuse clerk could perform with an instruction to “hold the line.”

Some hold the line. Others tow it.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Ahhs, where the great Wizards, also known as commissioners, seem to see the little picture more clearly than the big one and like to manage even the smallest of activities in each of the county’s departments.

Several excellent ideas seemed to die in their midst last week.

Their auditor suggested taking some of a $3 million surplus, which they’ve been ratholing into essentially a non-interest-bearing slush fund for new buildings, and investing it instead in gravel, which currently is unusually inexpensive.

Sensing that county road rage would support a tax increase instead, they chose not to raid their “rainy day” fund — even though this year, both literally and figuratively, has seen more than its share of rainy days for county roads.

It isn’t so much that a tax increase is needed; it’s that it’s politically possible to raise taxes because voters are likely to support whatever’s needed to fix something so visibly broken.

As for how to prevent future problems, plaintive pleas from the road superintendent to do more brainstorming on how to address long-term concerns rather than temporarily patch them over seemed to fall on deaf ears.

None of this is set in stone, of course — or even in 1½- or 2-inch gravel, as it were. The public will get its chance at the county’s budget hearing. The question is, will voters be lulled into thinking the two-mill increase earmarked for roads is the only way to fix them, or will they realize that, earmarks aside, the roads could be fixed within existing tax rates and the tax increase really is to allow for frivolous spending on such things as excess raises and excessive staffing?

— ERIC MEYER

UPDATE: After the newspaper went to press, the county announced that a commission work session session regarding county roads was scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.

Last modified Aug. 6, 2015

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