Attorney Robert Bass led a town hall meeting Monday evening discussing the proposed unit-road system that will be on the ballot for Angelina County voters this election.
The system was proposed by attorney Robert Flournoy through a petition signed by Angelina County voters.
Bass’s presentation covered unit systems for county road design, construction and maintenance. It was hosted by the Lufkin/Angelina Chamber of Commerce to educate county citizens on a hot-topic issue that will be on the November ballot, according to a press release.
About 30 people showed up to the presentation in person at Keltys Baptist Church, and Chamber President and CEO Tara Watson-Watkins said more tuned in through a Facebook live video.
“I tried to give a fair evaluation,” Bass said at the end of the presentation. “I’ve been dealing with this my whole career, one way or the other. They work in many cases, they don’t work some places. It really depends on the quality of the personnel and the level of communication and cooperation.”
The Texas Transportation system does not have a system specifically designated as a “unit-road system.” However, there are two systems under which commissioners can yield their road maintenance supervision to one person — a Road Superintendent/Voluntary System and a County Road Department/Referendum System — many times referred to as unit systems.
About 61 counties of Texas’ 254 counties have gone to a unit system.
Of the counties in Texas with a unit-road system, the average population is 138,648 and the Road Superintendent/Voluntary System was adopted in five counties and the County Road Department/Referendum System in 56, according to information Bass presented from the Texas Association of Counties.
The Texas Transportation Code 252.201 (West) prevents a list of counties, including Angelina County, from adopting a Road Superintendent System. Bass said it is not clear why these counties were restricted.
If approved by Angelina County’s voters, the County Road Department System would replace the county’s current Ex-Officio Road Commissioner System. This new system would be adopted through an election, and it could be discontinued through an election, if voters desire, in two years.
“I will say that I have seen at least one county that I know of that has gone from a commissioner system to a voluntary system back to a commissioner system to a referendum system back to a commissioner system, and they’re back now to the referendum unit system,” Bass said. “There are obviously pros and cons.”
The county road department would be responsible for the construction and maintenance of county roads — the commissioners court as the policy-making body, the county road engineer as the chief executive office, other administrative personnel and road employees.
“Other than an inquiry, the commissioners court has no real power to direct an engineer/administrator to do any particular or specific thing,” Bass said. “They can set general policy, but once a department is in place, the commissioners court can ask questions. And if they grow uneasy over time with the answers to such inquiries, they could eventually reach the point to which they say, we no longer have confidence in this administrator/engineer and remove that person.”
Commissioner precincts would not be considered in the construction and maintenance of county roads; the ownership and use of county road department equipment, materials and supplies; and the administration of the county road department.
“This is where it becomes a little more difficult in administration in the sense that, even in a county the size of Angelina, with essentially the same topography … each precinct has its own characteristics,” Bass said.
“The department engineer would not necessarily have any instinctive loyalties to any particular region of the county. Precinct commissioners tend to have a sense of ‘home’ for their precincts so there’s more possible contention on the court in terms of budget…”
The commissioners court would appoint a county road engineer who must:
■ be a licensed professional engineer experienced in road construction and maintenance.
■ meet the qualifications required by the Texas Department of Transportation for its district engineers.
However, if the commissioners court is unable to employ a licensed professional engineer, it may employ a county road administrator to perform the duties of the county road engineer.
The road administrator must have had experience in road building or maintenance or other types of construction work qualifying the person to perform the duties of the position, but no particular amount of professional training or experience in engineering work is required.
“The critical aspect of the job is the ability to truly ‘administer’ the complex issues of budgeting, hiring/firing, delegation of duties and management of personnel that would be required of a county-wide road and bridge department,” Bass said.
He also said, “Whether you’re operating under a precinct system or a department system, there are three factors that determine how successful that system will be — the quality of the people, the cooperation of those people and the ability to communicate needs and wants and problems and how to solve them.”
The county road engineer holds the position indefinitely unless voted out by a majority of the commissioners court. The commissioners court would set policy, and the engineer/administrator would be responsible for the execution of that policy.
In further questioning after the presentation, Bass said there is a lot commissioners do that doesn’t relate to roads and they would still be there as policy makers for all county business. In some cases, the court has elected to reduce salaries, but that is up to the court, he said.
Bass said his advice to the commissioners if the new system were to pass is to let the road administrator/engineer do their job and let the system work. If it doesn’t work, take action.
“You have been relieved of that duty, but you still have budget responsibility, and you’re still going to be getting calls from your constituents, so if there’s a consistent pattern of neglect or abuse that develops, it’s on you to inquire and find out why. But your ability to go down to the yard and direct your old ex-foreman to take a crew out and do something is gone. It’s up to the engineer to direct that crew.”
One of the struggles an engineer might face is that most of the counties’ road inventory have been adopted through time, not engineered. For a road engineer to actually “engineer” every road in the county, they would need a huge budget, Bass said.
“By and large, a county road may vary in width from 30 feet to 60 feet, but there’s just all sorts of roads,” Bass said. “There are no standards; it’s up to each county to look at its tax base and make a determination of what kind of budget it allows them to have in terms of roads. You can have the finest transportation system in the state of Texas if you want it and you’re willing to pay for it. But it’s going to take a lot of tax money.”
Bass said the road administrator/engineer would adopt many responsibilities that people may not understand commissioners do right now under the precinct system. The commissioners’ roles would change, as well.
For example, their duties to their constituents will likely become more complicated because complaints having to do with road administration would have to go through the county road department.
“I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get better service or worse service,” Bass said. “I’m just saying it’s going to be different, and you need to understand that.”
There is also room with the proposed system for the budget to shrink and grow. By the time a professional engineer is hired, the budget is likely to be where it is now or a little higher, even with consolidation of equipment, Bass said.
The total road and bridge budget for Angelina County for 2020 is $4,211,838, according to figures provided by Bass.
“You probably won’t know what the budget impact is until you’ve had a couple of years to find out,” Bass said. “You might save some money, you might not, but I would think to expect a big, immediate savings is probably unrealistic.”
The salary of a road engineer would range from $100,000-$200,000, Bass said. Finding an engineer who is willing to accept the court’s salary and live in the area may take a lengthy search, and the commissioners may decide to hire an administrator instead, he said.
To find a video of the presentation, visit the Chamber's Facebook. To view Bass' presentation in slide format, visit https://bit.ly/3nKvfze.