Commissioners clash on county road management system

County road maintenance has been a prevalent issue in Kaufman County for some time. This picture was taken by Phil Major, who reported on the damage heavy trucks had left on Abner Road in Oak Ridge in 2016. 

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In a rare display of dissonance amongst the members of the Kaufman County Commissioners Court, the commissioners were split over how to move forward regarding management of the county’s road and bridge budget and associated projects.

For years, Kaufman County citizens have made clear their dissatisfaction with the state of many county roads around the county. While the commissioners will likely move to approve a bond election to help fund the dozens of road improvement projects that they have identified as necessary this week, the issue of how those funds should be managed has been a subject of debate between the commissioners and County Judge Hal Richards.

The commissioners currently manage the county’s road and bridge fund and associated projects under an ex-officio system wherein the commissioners have largely been responsible for setting their own precinct’s road and bridge projects. However, Judge Richards has recently introduced discussion regarding whether the county should move to a road superintendent system, one of four management systems detailed in the Texas Transportation Code.

Under the superintendent system, the commissioners would appoint a road superintendent, a qualified and licensed engineer, who would be responsible for managing most of the resources, equipment and manpower related to the road and bridge fund. The superintendent would be appointed on a two-year term basis and given a budget and supervision by the county commissioners. The discussions got far enough along that a salary for such a superintendent had been included in the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget that the commissioners are in the process of finalizing. 

Judge Richards went on record saying he is “a big supporter” of the superintendent system. However, some commissioners became wary of the increased autonomy the superintendent would have, particularly on subsequent terms following the initial two. In contrast to this opinion, precinct 4 commissioner Ken Cates, who is the newest member of the commissioners court having begun his term alongside Judge Richards in January, made the case that it is the commissioners, not the superintendent, who need oversight.

“In my view, the current ex-officio system has been ineffective and has been for 40-plus years,” Cates said after seconding a motion from Judge Richards to approve the superintendent system. “Anybody who doubts that can just ask anybody on the street in my precinct and I would suspect in any other precinct as well. The road superintendent under this system we are considering still reports to the commissioners court and every commissioner would have the opportunity to daily interact with that road superintendent and ensure that his priorities in his precinct would be well-served. I really believe that the current ex-officio system in this county has really led to serious abuses in the past by commissioners including virtually criminal conduct. And that’s a situation that would certainly be mitigated by having a professional road engineer and an objective individual leading the Kaufman County road and bridge program. I believe that our current system leads to poor management and poor stewardship of the money that the citizens entrust to the commissioners court for the road and bridge fund. We also have devolved into management of our individual precincts into what we call contingency funds which are really just a slush fund that becomes money to use at the commissioner’s discretion with historically very little oversight. In precinct 2 we had almost $2 million in a contingency fund. In precinct 1, we had $1.5 million starting this year. In my precinct, I inherited $1.6 million. That’s millions of dollars that did not go on the roads for various reasons for the purpose that the citizens paid it in to.”

Despite his plea, however, commissoners Mike Hunt, Skeet Phillips and Terry Barber all voted no and the motion failed. In its place, commissioner Barber made the motion to switch the title of the “superintendent” in the budget to “county engineer,” who would operate under a set of guidelines described by precinct 1 commissioner Mike Hunt. Based on these guidelines, the engineer would operate similarly to the superintendent in that he or she would serve as a resource for the commissioners court to provide oversight on projects, but the position would lack much of the authority and autonomy that the superintendent would have possessed. This motion was unanimously approved along with a second motion to keep the position in place for at least two years.

Barber also attempted to make a third motion regarding the delegation of the county’s road and bridge budget to the precincts by miles of road serviced, but assistant DA Rebecca Lundberg stopped the court from proceeding with the motion as it was not placed on the agenda beforehand. The commissioners are slated to vote on this item in this week’s meeting.

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