Csokasy’s road less traveled

Published 10:48 am Friday, October 14, 2011

Louis Csokasy traveled an unusual path to managing both the Cass County and St. Joseph County road commissions.
First, he studied engineering — aerospace engineering.
Then he spent 30 years designing automotive components in the Detroit area.
When he retired to the south side of Diamond Lake, where he has an orchard and his wife, Donna, keeps horses, and wanted to give back to the community, he applied for the library board.
But the Cass County Board of Commissioners liked his engineering credentials for the Road Commission, as it expanded from three to five members.
When commissioners decided they wanted more business acumen at the helm, Csokasy seemed a good fit for manager.
“That’s the real story,” Csokasy told Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday, Oct. 6 at noon at Elks Lodge 889. “Bob Powers suggested I manage the road commission after about a year and a half. A little over a year ago we decided on a great experiment of a joint operating agreement between Cass and St. Joseph,” creating a road system second only to Oakland County’s.
Cass, the 10th-smallest Michigan county, has 496 square miles (24 miles wide by 22 miles deep) and 52,000 road commission “customers.” Total county road mileage is 1,014 miles, of which 772 are paved and 242 are gravel, with approximately 8,000 acres of road right of way.
Major state-maintained trunklines include U.S. 12, M-60, M-40, M-51 and M-62.
While population growth is concentrated in the southern tier of townships, Cass County remains primarily agriculture-oriented, ranking 15th of Michigan’s 83 counties for its output.
Cass County is one of only three Michigan counties that operates its own asphalt plant, along with Lenawee and Branch.
This year it will produce more than 52,000 tons. Asphalt uses gravel mined from its own pits.
The road commission logs almost 1,500 service requests annually, striving to clear them within two weeks, most within seven days with 40 employees, 32 who are unionized.
“If you call an organization and they don’t get back to you, you’ve got to ask if they care,” Csokasy figures.
Commissioners appoint the five road commissioners, but after that they operate independently of county government.
The Road Commission has no jurisdiction for state, city or village arteries.
Road responsibilities fall into two designations, primary roads (“how we get from place to place”) and local roads (“how you get to your house”).
Primaries, for which the CCRC has maintenance and rebuilding responsibility, would include Dailey Road, Marcellus Highway and Pokagon Highway.
The CCRC has maintenance responsibility for local roads, but requires a partner to share cost for major reconstruction.
Examples would be Eagle Lake, May or Hess and all gravel roads.
“Tax dollars you pay on your house don’t go for roads,” Csokasy said. “We are funded by a 19-cent state tax on a gallon of gasoline,” which prompts a Rotarian to observe, “You should have a lot of money then,” given the price of fuel fluttering between $3 and $4.
However, “That funds all roads in Michigan and all the other transportation,” including airports. “The 83 Road Commissions get 37 percent, MDOT gets the same amount,” and cities, villages and airports divvy up the remaining share.
“Every year we actually use less gasoline, which means we get less revenue,” he said. “Back in 2000, we received from Michigan $4.36 million. This year, $4.32 million. That’s $28,000 less than 10 years ago” while costs increased 80 percent.
It costs about $83,000 to pave a mile of road.
“The good new is that for the last four years we’re not broke,” Csokasy said. “There are several counties which laid off their entire workforce for the summer. We have a reserve that’s been relatively constant of about $1.3 million. You need reserves like that to function because last month I paid bills in excess of $2 million.”
Upgrading almost 60 miles of road is “not bad,” he said, when surrounding counties are more in the range of four to eight. Upgrading combines 40 miles of paving with chip-and-seal and regraveling because gravel roads wear out.
“That crunching sound you hear under your wheels” is stones being pulverized into sand. Upgrades over the last three years averaged 54 miles, “virtually doubling” the 29-mile average of the previous three years.
Csokasy highlighted policies the board created, from snow plowing to mailboxes, tree removal, piers, trash removal and deer that he implements as manager.
“Last year we created a second shift (to plow snow) 16 hours instead of eight hours,” he said. “This year we’re trying to figure out a way to plow snow seven days a week, but we have a no bare road policy. We use 1,500 to 1,700 tons of road salt a year, which sounds like a lot, but is about what Grand Rapids uses in a day. We use a sand and salt mixture. The day is coming when salt will be banned on roads because it’s a pollutant. Once you get it in your aquifers, you can’t get it out.”
Mailboxes are an occasional casualty of wing plows, so the Road Commission settles claims with a free container, post and $20 without arguments about blame. One snowbird brought in a battered box in May because they had been in Florida, “which didn’t get a lot of sympathy from us.”
“If the tree is dead and poses a hazard to the traveling public, we’ll take it out,” Csokasy said.
Trees which fall outside the right of way are property owners’ responsibility.
With roads which end at lakes, the CCRC will allow piers, except Eagle Lake, which requires a 40-foot separation. A pier permit cannot be issued to a riparian owner. A $50 fee is charged along with a requirement for a sketch showing pier location relative to adjacent property. The pier cannot trespass on adjoining property and shall remain open and available to the public.
Water vessels moored on a pier cannot interfere with the safe and free use of others. Proof of insurance is required. Permits are valid March 1-Nov. 1. The number of watercraft moored to the pier is limited to one. Such permits exist at the pleasure of the Road Commission and may be revoked at any time.
Trash removal “is a constant battle. People continue to want to use the roadsides to throw their trash out,” he said. “The biggest help we get is (Sheriff) Joe (Underwood) sending a crew out.”
Perhaps his “favorite” policy is removing deer from the traveling lane.
Animals may not be moved from private property onto the right of way.
“It doesn’t say dead raccoons, dead horses, dead squirrels, dead cats,” he said. “I know in today’s environment, people want to degrade government employees as lazy. I can only tell you from my perspective in business for over 30 years in plants around the world, you have as hard-working a group of men and women at the Cass County Road Commission it’s ever been my pleasure to supervise. They’re a credit to Cass County.”
The CCRC is responsible for more than 20,000 signs, which the federal government decided must be replaced by 2016 with higher-reflectivity placards, constituting a $500,000 unfunded mandate for Cass County. But “uproar” yanked the rule for the time being.
Villages and cities which went to street signs in school colors were also to be subject to regulation.
Csokasy addressed another federal requirement which leaves citizens shaking their heads as the Road Commission improves surfaces a patch at a time.
“They will not allow us to do two contiguous projects, which they define as two miles,” he said, “so we pave a mile, then go down the road two miles and pave another section. The following year we do the same thing. The third year, we can actually join them.”
The CCRC received a grant to pave 1.82 miles of M-205 coming out of Elkhart, Ind., as long as it used 4,000 ground-up tires like those produced in Sturgis and Dowagiac by Deerpath Recycling.