Road commission reorganizing for 2011

Published 5:24 pm Sunday, December 19, 2010

CASSOPOLIS — Cass County Road Commission’s 2011 goals include becoming first in Michigan organized around tasks rather than geographic locations.

Manager Louis Csokasy reported to the Board of Commissioners Thursday night on 2010 accomplishments and previewed the year ahead.

“We’re going to reorganize the Road Commission’s supervisory and unionized workforce. Ours and virtually every one in Michigan are organized geographically into districts. We ought to be organized around tasks and processes. We’ve selected three — construction and drainage, trees and brush and roads. We’re organizing our entire organization around those three processes. I suspect it’s the first Road Commission in Michigan to actually do it.”

Asked about the joint operation agreement signed with St. Joseph County to make him a “shared resource” — “it’s not a merger” — Csokasy splits his days Mondays and Fridays between St. Joseph and Cass counties, spends Wednesdays there and Thursdays in Cassopolis, with Tuesday designated for “wherever I’m needed most.”

“The acceptance has been outstanding,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with it. We’ve already shared personnel. We had their bridge people come over to our side and we sent our engineering resources to their side. We share major equipment already. You have to understand you have trucks you use all the time, but you have major pieces of equipment you may only use 100 hours a year. There’s no reason for us to own one and there’s no reason for St. Joseph to own one. We are already working toward having a joint purchasing committee. We each buy about $4 million of products every year. They have the same vendors and buy the same materials. That’s an area of potential savings. I’m not going to tell anyone around this board that it’s easy, but they don’t pay us for easy — they pay us for results. I suspect we’ll be able to save multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars for both counties in the next fiscal year.”

“The Road Commission had a pretty decent year,” Csokasy continued. “We certainly have our challenges, but everybody’s working really hard to overcome them.”

Csokasy’s agency is responsible for maintaining 1,014 miles of road in Cass County, of which 772 are paved and 242 are gravel.

“Most people don’t realize we have over 8,000 acres of right-of-way we have to work on every day. We have a large brush tree problem in Cass County and we’re working on that very aggressively. Cass County is one of only three counties in Michigan which operates its own asphalt plant,” Csokasy said. “This year, we made a little over 47,000 tons and laid virtually every bit of it on Cass County roads. The other two don’t come anywhere near that. We are unique.

“We also have our own gravel operation, which we named after Bob Powers today. That’s the official name. Everyone around the Road Commission calls it ‘Powers pit’ already.”

Most funding comes from the state through gas tax.

“The difference between 2003 and the 2011 estimate comes out to about $695,000 on an annual basis,” Csokasy said. “What does that mean? Every year we could pave the equivalent of Calvin Center all the way from U.S. 12 to M-60. Basically, nine miles. It’s a big hit for us every year as that continues to drop. That’s our challenge.”

Yet cash reserves increased during 2010, he said, to $1.5 million.

“We’ve targeted keeping that cash reserve at $750,000 to $800,000,” Csokasy said. “From a cash reserve standpoint, the Road Commission’s done a pretty decent job.”

The Road Commission constructed about 47 miles in 2010.

“You can see, however, we did no gravel roads,” he pointed out. “There are two reasons for that. We always leave our gravel roads to the end, and we were so busy with asphalt and chip and seal, we didn’t get it done until after our fiscal year, so we actually did some gravel work this calendar year that doesn’t show up in our fiscal numbers. That is clearly an area that we intend to work on. We expect in 2011 to chip and seal and asphalt at the same rate, and I have a goal to get gravel work up to 10 to 15 miles.”

Csokasy maintains a chart depicting the number of years it would take to rebuild the county’s road system.

“A road will last the way we do it about 20 years,” he explained. “If you started down in Milton Township and did every road, how long would it take to get back there? A few years ago we were at 66 years. Last year we were at 38 years. This year we reduced it to 33 years. We’re not at 20 years yet, but we’re trending in the right direction.”

Historically, the Road Commission built roads. “Actually, we don’t build roads anymore,” Csokasy said, “we maintain roads. What we’ve been working on is better maintenance.”

To offset lost state revenue, “This year we received $1.6 million from the (15) townships,” Csokasy said. “That’s up in the last two years from about $900,000. The townships have really come through and given us a hand. They should be applauded. Chipping and sealing keeps it good for seven years longer, which we’ve been emphasizing.”

Customer satisfaction is also carefully chronicled. In fact, the CCRC is being nominated for state recognition based on past performance the previous three years.

Responding to service requests, “We receive about 1,200 a year now. When we got involved with this in 2007, it took us a month to respond to most of our service requests. We moved that down in 2008 and again in 2009. We don’t have any anymore outstanding for over 30 days, which is pretty remarkable.

“I’ll give you another remarkable statistic. I was over in another county to the west of here (last) Monday morning. We had the crews out at 4 o’clock. There was a little snow on the ground and the roads were not the best. I asked how many service requests for snow we got Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning about 9 o’clock. Zero! I asked her if the phone was plugged in.”

Redfield Road bridge reopened to load-restricted traffic at a cost of $70,000, Csokasy related.

“We are just completing selection of the design source. We will be replacing that bridge in 2012. We want to institute a spraying program on our primary roads. We took District 1, which is the four townships in the northwest portion of our county, trimmed all the brush back and completed a spray program. I thought that would be very controversial, but we did not receive one complaint when we implemented that spray program this year.”

Another achievement during 2010 is implementing a CAD (computer-aided design) system.

“When we go out in the field to reconstruct roads, we are actually taking out and giving to our crews a completed drawing as if an engineering firm had completed that design in detail. That substantially improved our efficiency,” Csokasy said.

Ahead in the summer of 2011 is negotiating a new contract with the Road Commission’s unionized workforce.

“Ours has been excellent and worked with us closely. If you think the job is easy — the old idea of three guys leaning against one shovel — come on in at 5 o’clock and follow one of those trucks. Also yet to be completed are three-year road plans for each township.”

Signs also pose a huge challenge, although Csokasy is taking a more measured, wait-and-see attitude.

“Washington, D.C., in its infinite wisdom, decided we’re going to change every sign in the county by 2016 for higher reflectivity. It will cost us $500,000. We have over 9,000 signs within the county, so it’s a big job. Reflective signs are easier for our aging population to read. To be honest, I haven’t rushed into this one because I think there might be changes coming down the pike.”

Commissioner Johnie Rodebush, D-Niles, cracked, “You’re still wasting three or four hours a night just sleeping. Would you like to get on another committee?”

“I’m still looking to get on the library board,” Csokasy replied, referring to where he hoped to serve before being appointed to the Road Commission, then Powers suggested he become Road Commission manager.

“Between Ron (Vice Chairman Francis, who does not want to relinquish his library board seat) and Bob, they’re not real high on my wife’s list,” said Csokasy, accompanied by Donna.