Local Road Maintenance: The Structure
(from Maine Townsman, March 2003)
by Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer

    In rural Mount Vernon, a community of 1,500 outside of Augusta, voters each year elect someone to see that the roads are patched, plowed and ditched. The road commissioner supervises a crew of one or two seasonal workers to perform routine maintenance. Plowing and paving are handled through competitive bidding. The structure, in place for decades, works in a town that oversees 45 miles of mostly secondary roads. People don’t seem to mind the occasional frost heave, as long as taxes remain low.

       “There’s a reason why people live in a town like this,” said Road Commissioner Jeff Kent, who oversees a roads budget of roughly $200,000, about average for such a small town. “They want the rural atmosphere, and they’re willing to put up with some inconveniences to have it.”

       In suburban Cape Elizabeth, by contrast, a full-time public works crew takes care of 60 miles of well-traveled streets. Many of the town’s 9,000 residents commute to jobs in Portland, and they expect the town to patch potholes promptly and have the roads plowed by the time they leave in the morning. Here, residents pay higher taxes and demand a higher level of services.

       “They need to get where they need to go,” said Public Works Director Bob Malley, who oversees a roads budget of about $634,000, also in line with other communities. “The roads need to be taken care of, and the expectation is that they will be.”

       The two towns – one rural with a tight pocketbook, the other affluent and growing – reflect the state of local road maintenance in Maine today: Most communities provide the level of services their residents expect. There is no standard way of structuring public works departments and looking after local roads. Many of the state’s 492 municipalities leave the task of overseeing summer and winter maintenance to a municipal manager or the board of selectmen who seeks bids from qualified contractors. Others elect road commissioners who do the routine work themselves and contract for large projects such as paving. A smaller number of places – mostly larger, service-center communities – employ full-time public works departments. The approach to local road maintenance, in many cases, has remained unchanged for decades.

       A two-part series, starting in this issue, examines Maine’s municipal road maintenance structure and its cost. Part 1 looks at how municipalities currently handle road maintenance, with emphasis on budding efforts to share costs through joint purchasing and other cooperative ventures. Part 2, in April, will explore regionalization in greater detail and highlight successful, innovative systems in other states that have saved money while improving service.

       Overall, municipalities handle 60 percent of the roughly 22,000 miles of roadways in Maine. They rely on a combination of local, state and occasional federal money to plow, pave and keep their roads in decent shape. The lion’s share of funding for local projects in most communities either is set by city or town councilors, after discussions with administrators, or approved by voters at annual town meetings. Total spending depends largely on the number of miles of roads in a community. Taxpayers – directly or through their elected officials – ultimately determine the level of commitment to those roads.

       “The citizens have different expectations of what they’re willing to pay for,” said Gerry James, public works director in Presque Isle.

       James oversees a budget for highway operations of roughly $1 million to care for 100 miles of paved roads and 10 miles of gravel roads. Because Presque Isle handles several miles of state roads under a common agreement with the Maine Department of Transportation, the town receives about $150,000 annually in state road aid through the Urban Rural Initiative Program, easing the burden on local taxpayers. “It works well, really well,” James said, adding that some smaller communities with a high percentage of state-aid roads rely heavily upon URIP money. 

       The amount of state highway funding a community receives depends largely on arrangements that individual municipalities make with the MDOT. Traditionally, the state gave communities essentially open-ended grants to help plow and repair secondary state roads. The amount of money a community received depended on how many miles of state-aid roads it assumed responsibility for. Communities were free to use the money as they saw fit. “Generally, there were no strings attached,” said Peter Coughlan, who oversees the local roads program for MDOT.

       In 1999, with state dollars shrinking, the state restructured the local roads program. It now awards about $22 million each year to Maine counties and municipalities, primarily for capital improvement projects. “We want that money to be spent on some type of project that’s going to last at least 10 years,” Coughlan said. “It’s trying to get better life out of the dollars they receive.”

Looking for efficiencies

       Municipal leaders largely share that attitude. In communities throughout Maine, administrators and elected officials constantly are seeking to make the most of the tax dollars they invest in highway maintenance. They solicit the best prices on supplies and equipment, negotiate the best deals with contractors, and in some cases make purchases jointly through regional cooperation. Sometimes, however, traditional systems can serve to work against cost-effectiveness, especially in places with elected road commissioners serving single-year terms.

       Greg Dore, former president of the Maine Chapter of the American Public Works Association, says a knowledgeable and long-serving road commissioner can be an asset. Residents grow over time to trust a commissioner’s judgment and reward him with re-election. That experience, in turn, can save money. An experienced road commissioner will know how to make the most of limited tax dollars. In most cases, a veteran hand also will know what is needed to comply with state and federal rules for occupational safety and environmental regulation, avoiding potential penalties.

       And, as Dore knows, there is a learning curve.  Eleven years ago, he upset a 35-year veteran to become road commissioner in Skowhegan. Besides supervising a 12-person highway crew and coordinating bid projects, he also had to learn the rules and regulations associated with the job. Thankfully, he said, MDOT offered training through the Maine Local Roads Center. The training, Dore said, “was a lifesaver for me, in terms of understanding the issues of road building.”

       He has become a knowledgeable, effective road commissioner who rarely faces opposition at the polls. He appreciates the stability he enjoys in Skowhegan, because he knows how political a road commissioner’s job can be. In one small community near Skowhegan, for instance, factions in past years competed for power. The road commissioner’s office became a revolving door, making it difficult to maintain continuity. “It was a mess,” Dore said. “Nothing ever got completed.”

       Recently, Dore convinced Skowhegan selectmen and members of a study committee to give the road commissioner more job security: They drafted a warrant article seeking to extend his term from one to three years. The measure passed, allowing Dore to focus on the job at hand, uninterrupted, for the longest period of his tenure.

       Such stability carries advantages. In recent years, Dore has established good working relationships with other public works directors in the region. He routinely meets with representatives of about a dozen other communities to discuss issues and share ideas. Together, members of the regional consortium jointly solicit bids for paving work, engineering services and a variety of other projects. The interlocal cooperation allows them to take advantage of economies of scale inherent in bulk purchases, saving money.

       “Regionalization is something that needs to be done, but we don’t see a whole lot of it,” Dore said.

Limited Regionalization

       But regionalization is likely to become more common, especially amid the looming threat of reduced state aid. So far, however, efforts largely have been limited to bulk purchases of goods and services. In Greater Portland, communities for more than two decades have purchased a variety of goods jointly through a program run by the Greater Portland Council of Governments. The program enables communities to buy road salt, diesel fuel, gasoline and even office supplies in bulk. The communities also bid together for tree-trimming services, paving and road striping.

       “You’re going to get a better deal if you purchase 100,000 gallons [of fuel] than if you purchase 5,000 gallons,” said Malley, the public works director in Cape Elizabeth. “It’s just simple mathematics.” 

       Such cooperation has been slower to arrive in other areas. In Aroostook County, a group of public works directors has made joint purchases of road salt since the mid-1990s. Nineteen communities together purchase about nine tons of salt each winter. “For the most part, there is very little regionalization,” said Jay Kamm, director of regional planning for the Northern Maine Development Commission, based in Caribou. “To be honest with you, we tried to do other projects and products, and it was not coordinated that well.”

       James, public works director in Presque Isle, said larger communities often lend one another larger pieces of equipment to save money. In addition, communities try to “piggy-back” on state purchases of tires and other smaller, less expensive equipment.  “We’re always looking out for the dollar,” James said.

       Given such ventures, Kamm holds hope for other regionalization efforts. April 9 will mark the first meeting of the newly-formed Aroostook County Public Works Association. Kamm said he hopes the initiative will lead to greater regional cooperation on training programs and other services, allowing several communities to take advantage of them at reduced costs. But he hopes the program eventually will go another step: He would like one day to see widespread discussions of shared plowing of roads in the winter and maintenance in the summer. Such ventures would enable smaller communities to share equipment.

       “Maybe the city of Caribou could be plowing a road for the township of Connor. It would make their runs easier,” Kamm said. “This is the type of thing we want to look at.”

       The advantage is obvious: It would allow smaller communities either to avoid expensive capital purchases or to share in their costs. “When you’ve got 15 to 20 miles of road, do you really need a $200,000 piece of equipment?” Kamm asked. “These towns are looking at efficiencies: Do all of these towns really need all this equipment, or is there a possibility of sharing?”

       Dana Lee, who manages the Androscoggin County town of Mechanic Falls, agrees that public works projects are likely to receive increased scrutiny. In many communities, roads consume one of the largest shares of a budget, next to expenditures for public safety. Mechanic Falls, with about 3,100 residents, supports a public works department. With responsibility for just 14 miles of roadway – or two-thirds of the roads that run through the small community – the town spends about $180,000 a year on summer and winter maintenance, according to MMA’s 2002 Municipal Fiscal Survey. That is less than communities of similar size spend on their road maintenance, again because the town oversees so few miles of road. But with money becoming tight, innovation is likely to rule the day.

       “There’s a great need, on the part of councilors and selectpersons, to prove that they are operating efficiently,” Lee said. “They are constantly looking for ways to get more bang for their dollar.”

       Examples abound, he said. Lewiston, the state’s second largest city, sub-contracts a large part of its winter plowing. Portland’s public works department competes against private contractors for certain highway projects. Even in Wallagrass, an Aroostook County town of just 561 people, officials are looking to contract out most public works jobs, rather than continuing to handle them in-house. “It’s really money-driven, accountability driven,” Lee said.

       It may take time, however, for the trends to reach all areas of Maine.

       Change, in many places, arrives slowly. Officials often hesitate to disrupt things, especially in communities where traditions have held for generations. Kent, the road commissioner in Mount Vernon, once considered asking selectmen to draft a warrant article increasing the length of the commissioner’s term from one year to three years. At first, he believed the change would give the process greater stability. But then he thought better of it: Why fix something that isn’t broken?

            “People don’t like change, for one thing,” said Kent, who has been road commissioner for 11 years. “I just decided to leave it alone. Who am I, after 200 years, to change the vote?”