Cape County officials nix new paving supervisor

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Cape Girardeau County commissioners rejecting a proposal Tuesday to hire a paving program supervisor with funds from a new sales tax.

County highway administrator Scott Bechtold asked for the supervisor, with a $35,000 annual salary, as well as $90,000 for new equipment to implement the paving plan.

But commissioners Jay Purcell and Gerald Jones stood firmly against using the new revenue for any purpose but laying asphalt. Commissioner Larry Bock, who oversees the road program, expressed frustration with the decision but eventually agreed with his colleagues.

"I do remember making the promises many times, that there would be no raises, no employees and no equipment," Jones said.

The extra work imposed by an ambitious paving program may require the county to buy more equipment or to hire an additional supervisor, Jones added. But the burden should fall on the regular budget, not the funds set aside for paving, he said. "I am not questioning the need but the placement."

Purcell was vehemently opposed to the new position and equipment. He noted he had been the lead-off speaker at most public meetings promoting the tax issue and had promised that the portion set aside for paving wouldn't be diverted into payroll or equipment.

"That is the thing I want to hang my hat on and will not be made a liar on," Purcell said.

County officials are also working out the details of a 2007 spending plan, aiming to be finished in time for a public hearing Dec. 21. Exact spending levels for most departments are fluid, because commissioners must close a gap of about $2 million between requests and anticipated revenue.

The new sales tax takes effect Jan. 1. Commissioners are working from an estimate that the tax will bring in about $4.1 million during the calendar year because money paid by consumers to retailers won't begin reaching county accounts until March. Competing demands on the money include the paving program, promised raises and additional deputies for the sheriff's department and replacing property tax revenue for the Cape Special Road District and the County Highway Department.

Bock, who has questioned whether the extra employees for the sheriff's department were a promise or a suggestion, said the extra help and equipment is important to making the paving program work. "Wherever we find the money, the need is there, guys."

The new sales tax is the bright spot in the budget for 2007 -- the fund should end the year in surplus. But it is the details of the early spending -- how soon to start raises for deputies, when to turn money over to the special road district and whether to set funds aside to operate the County Highway Department in 2008 -- that will cause friction, Jones noted.

"We've got a really enviable situation," he said. "We've just got to get through '07 without having any fistfights."

During the budget discussions, Bechtold told commissioners that the county will likely fall short of paving the nine miles of road approved for 2007. Workers in the highway department will have about 6.5 miles of road ready for asphalt during the coming year, he said.

That led to a discussion of whether the county should hire contractors for future road preparation work, as it does now for the placement of asphalt. In his proposed budget, Bechtold estimated that preparing a road with widening, laying the rock base and smoothing costs the county $30,000 a mile. He estimated contracting the job would cost $35,000 a mile.

Those differences are small, Purcell noted, and should spark a discussion of whether the county should limit the road crews to maintenance efforts as a way to control overhead. He noted that 75 percent of the departments' regular $2.8 million budget request for 2007 is earmarked for salaries, employee benefits and equipment replacement.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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