By Jo Josephson
The condition of the roads. Could anything be more controversial? More political? The source of so many opinionated opinions at town meeting?
Could anything be more divisive? Setting newcomers who live on the back roads against the natives who were "smart enough" to live out on the state road?
Could anything be more frustrating than the relationship between the board of selectmen and the independent-minded, fully-equipped, elected road commissioner?
In some towns the heated debates over how well the road commissioner is doing his job, how much to spend on the roads and where and why have become a town meeting ritual. if not tradition; dreaded by some, savored by others.
Consider the action at the Cornville (pop. 926) town meeting this year where things became so extreme that not a penny was raised for paving or as the headlines describes it "Cornville nixes road work." Not because there was no need or no money but because residents couldn't come to a consensus as to which roads to spend their money on.
Following defeat of an article to construct a portion of a certain road, at least ten residents were reported to have stormed out of the town hall."
Extreme? Nothing unusual? Traditional? All of the above?
It need not be.
Consider Cornville again, where in the midst of the meeting, the moderator, speaking as a member of the budget committee, reportedly made a plea for a more rational "more comprehensive approach to fixing up the roads. The board of selectmen took the suggestion seriously, according to Selectman Gilbert Poland. Following the meeting, they appointed a ten-member road committee, which was to include a member of the board of selectmen, the road commissioner and eight residents, "to draw up a list of priorities."
In case you hadn't heard, in the past ten years, a small number of towns have established such committees in an attempt to deal with what is probably the most hotly debated and second most costly item next to the school budget.
Some of the towns contacted for this article. like Vassalboro and China have had road committees for about ten years: others like Troy, Westport, Brooksville, Hartford. Mt Vernon and New Sharon are more recent.
Others are just being born, like those in Palermo and Albion, the product of the current comprehensive planning process. If all goes according to schedule, road committees will become commonplace in small towns as offshoots or spin-offs of the comprehensive planning process.
This article looks at the arguments for establishing such a committee; it also suggests ways to go about establishing one: what to consider, what to avoid. It also looks at the workplans of various committees, the road management plans they have come up with and the resources they have drawn upon.
Value of A Road Committee
Advisory in nature, road committees appear to be most needed in towns which do not have their own road equipment and where there is no manager to act as a road commissioner.
They are seen as a way to take the politics out of the paving." Arguing that the road committees are "apolitical" and therefore will "depoliticize" the decision making process, advocates say that the committee, if wisely chosen and directed, will end the rule by favoritism or the squeaky wheels. "The cost is too great to leave the decision to political preference or whim," says Michael Roy, who serves Vassalboro (pop. 3,954) as both town manager and road commissioner Road committees rather than being an adversary of the road commissioners are there to ease their burden, point out others, providing them with extra eyes. ears and legs as well as planning capabilities. "Road commissioners are traditionally not administrators; they drive trucks and run equipment, says Troy Selectman Judy Rock, whose town has had a road committee since 1987 and whose current road commissioner has a full-time job and does the town's work when he can.
Road committees are also a boon to overworked boards of selectmen "It's a way to keep the town from going to the town manager form of government," says Leonard Dow, the chairman of the Comprehensive Planning Committee in Albion, a town noted for its strong record of volunteerism. Two years ago, a three member "road subcommittee" of the comprehensive planning committee was established to inventory the conditions of the town's roads.
Albion's final plan now calls for the establishment of a permanent five member road committee to develop standards and priorities "in cooperation with the selectmen and road commissioner."
While many road committees appear to be established to inventory the conditions of the roads and prepare long-term road management plans, there are endless other road-related tasks they can perform, including recording the maintenance history of the roads, rescuing it from the brain and dashboard of the road commissioner, conducting a legal inventory of the roads. In some towns, such as Palermo, the committee is being asked to work with the selectmen to "write a job description for the road commissioner."
And finally, in the larger towns such as Vassalboro, where the town manager serves as the road commissioner, the committee is most valuable in broadening the support for the final plan when it comes before town meeting. While they were not in on the collection of data and formation of the plan, they are there to review and comment on it before it goes before the voters, notes Vassalboro's Roy.
Establishing A Road Committee
There are three traditional approaches to forming a road committee or for that matter any committee: by authority of the selectmen, by passage of an warrant article at town meeting, or by passage of an ordinance by the legislative body.
All are equally legal. The difference is more a matter of scope and effect. Action by the selectmen is usually without much detail leaving the future prey to political maneuvering and foot dragging; the same is usually the case when it comes to a general article in the warrant. For explicit goals, responsibility and authority, you will want to pass a "Road Committee Ordinance," suggests MMA Staff Attorney Joseph Wathen.
For guidance in establishing a committee by ordinance see the Legal note on "Ordinance Enactment," on page 29 of the April 1989 issue of the TOWNSMAN. The MMA also has a model Budget Committee Ordinance that can be adapted for the establishment of a Road Committee.
The comprehensive planning process, from which future road committees are expected to spring, as noted above, provides yet a fourth way. By its very nature, the comprehensive planning process requires an inventory of the town roads and the development of a ten-year plan. The inventory is conducted by a temporary road committee; the creation of the plan falls to a road committee, which can be temporary or permanent.
One such example of a proposed permanent committee is to be found in Palermo. Its draft comprehensive plan states that the road committee "will be considered to be created upon adoption of the comprehensive plan and that the selectmen will appoint members as soon as is practical but no later than April 1992; annually thereafter."
Who? How many? Should it include the selectmen? The road commissioner? Those contacted for this article report as few as three (Troy) as many as ten (Vassalboro) are serving on their committees. In some the road commissioner is a member, in some cases there is a representation from the board of selectmen.
The number of people on the committee could be a problem, as they found out in Troy, where the article establishing the committee called for seven members, including the road commissioner and three selectmen. But as many as 15 said they wanted to be on the committee, causing the selectmen to make a motion that as many as wanted could be on the committee. Needless to say, the first year was a stormy, confrontational year with little accomplished.
The next year, the committee was reduced to three members and an alternate, with the selectmen and road commissioner purely advisory. Suggestions from those who have weathered the committee experience are as follows:
The most irate and vocal people at town meeting don't necessarily make the best members of a committee as they may not know how to listen to others. It is critical that members are able to work with others in a committee setting.
While it is important to have some technical expertise on the committee, it is not critical that all members have expertise as long as they are willing to go to the experts for information and advice. Many towns were fortunate to have a retiree from the Maine Department of Transportation living in their town; others include former road commissioners and retired contractors as well as school bus coordinators and mail carriers on their committees. Some say it is important to include a member of the board of selectmen and a member of the budget committee.
It goes without saying that you want to avoid members who have vested interests such as developers, contractors or the squeaky wheels who want their road paved. Look for members who have the interest of the entire town. If you have several distinctive neighborhoods or geographic centers in town, be sure to have representatives from all of them, suggests China Town Manager, who has three such centers and whose five-member committee is appointed by the board of selectmen.
It is not a good idea to have the membership made up mostly of newcomers, as was the case in Brooksville, where the only native member was the road commissioner according to member Brett Brubaker. The plan they came up with was an "expensive one;" the report was "thorough but unrealistic; it was a little too ambitious," says Brubaker and since defeat, he reports the committee has not been active.
The most critical member, say some, is the chairman; it works best if he or she is a patent listener who knows something, but not too much about the subject. Their job is to keep the discussion on track; it works best if the person is "looked up to by the community," says Bill Mitman, a member of the Westport Road Committee. It goes without saying, they should also know how to run a meeting.
Perhaps the most difficult decision is whether the road commissioner should be on the committee. If anyone knows the roads, it is the road commissioners and it is important to invite them to join the committee. But not all road commissioners view the formation of the committee favorably. Initial apprehension and defensiveness and even paranoia by road commissioners should be expected. In some towns the road commissioners are members of the committee; in others they are advisory; in yet others they have been invited to join but have declined. In at least one town, Hartford, not only is the road committee the same as the budget committee, it also serves as the road commissioner!
If the workplan is not set forth in the document that established the committee, it will be up to the committee to develop its own workplan.
In New Sharon (pop. 1,122), the committee consists of eight members including the road commissioner. According to chairman Tom Nelson, the committee was charged with the task of exploring the condition of the paved and un-surfaced roads and making recommendations for repair. It was also asked to explore the feasibility of long-term contracting of winter and summer road equipment; to explore the condition of the iron bridge and decide, whether to repair or dismantle it; and to explore or verify the legal status of "questionable roads."
In Mt. Vernon (pop. 1,192), where there is a six member committee including the road commissioner, the goals are to make certain road monies are spent most wisely; to support the road commissioner; to act as a liaison between the road commissioner and the selectmen; and to educate all about the conditions of the road.
"We are not a watchdog over the road commissioner, some would like to see it that way," stresses Ron Hodgdon, chairman of Mt. Vernon's Road Committee, "our relationship with the road commissioner is a cooperative one intended to make his life easier."
In Westport (pop. 520), the committee's mandate was general: to study the roads and report back the cost of the best way of improving them. In its report to the town, the committee further defined its function as follows: assist the selectmen and road commissioner; file an annual report; design a bidding package for the road work; keep track of construction performance and budget allocations; and attend workshops by the Maine Local Roads Center.
In Palermo (pop. 865), the comprehensive plan has set the following goals for its future three member road committee: develop a road management plan, establish overall policies and priorities including a regular maintenance program; develop road standards for adoption by the town; provide guidance to the road commissioner on an ongoing basis; make annual recommendations to the budget committee; and make an annual report to the town.
Some committees reported a turbulent first year. Others appear not to be out of the woods yet. And yet others are not sure of their future.
To cite Troy as just one example whose rough start made the news soon after it was established. The local paper noted that the town was "rapidly finding out that it might be easier to design a workable road than a workable committee" when it was faced with a committee made up of whoever wanted to join and conflicting articles establishing its authority.
With numerous members, including the road commissioner and the selectmen, the meetings became confrontational and defensive, according to chairman David Rock. It took at least a year for things to settle out before the work could begin on Troy's long-term plan.
Mt. Vernon also got off to a rough start. "It was relatively ineffective at first, with people refusing to work cooperatively," reports Ron Hodgdon, an instructor of forestry who agreed to take on the chairmanship of the committee about a year ago. As this article went to press, there were news reports of "friction" among the members and resignations from the committee.
Westport's Mitman waxes philosophical on committees and rough starts and says he sees the first stage of the committee as a "miniature town meeting where everybody has a chance to get rid of their pent-up opinions before getting down to business." He says it is an important stage that should not be overlooked.
Road Management Plans
A road management plan is seen by some as part of a Capital Improvement Program (CIP). But not everyone, including Vassalboro Town Manager Michael Roy sees them as such arguing that capital improvements have a longer life, roads must be done annually.
Whatever you choose to call it the goals and strategies are essentially the same and are perhaps best described in the "Capital Improvements Programming Guidebook for Maine Communities," a publication of the Maine State Planning Office, as follows:
"In its most basic form, the CIP is no more than a schedule listing capital (road) improvements, in order of priority, together with cost estimates and the proposed method of financing them. The CIP is not merely a list of desired projects . . . but rather, it is a schedule of needed projects encompassing both realistic costs and financing elements."
Descriptions and excerpts of two road management plans follow. The first, Vassalboro's, is presented here for its form. The second, Troy's, is presented in terms of its content.
Vassalboro's 20-page road management plan is developed by the town manager, who also serves as the road commissioner, with input from an advisory road committee that meets three to six times a year. The plan is divided into three sections each is subdivided into paved and gravel: Section I contains a complete inventory and work history of all town roads. Each road is described according to location length and work history, including funds spent. The historical report is both narrative and tabular; Section II contains an assessment of existing conditions based on a survey using the Maine Road Surface Management System. The assessment details problems with pavements, culverts, ditches, etc., and classifies the roads according to those existing conditions.
Section III consists of a priority plan for meeting all the needs expressed. There are four general strategies in this section: routine and preventative maintenance (the most cost effective activity), resurfacing, reconstruction (the most expensive and planned 5-10 years in advance), and deferred action.
The following "content" is taken from a five-page summary of Troy's five year road improvement and maintenance plan that appeared in the town's 1989 annual report. Among the facts noted about the approximate 30 miles of town roads were: During the next five years, approximately half the gravel road system will need improvement; during the same period, all the paved roads will need improvement. The cost of improving the gravel roads will range from a low of $10,000 per mile to a high of $25,000; the cost of improving paved roads will range from a low of $12,000 per mile to a high of $45,000 per mile for a complete rebuild and resurface.
During the past five years the voters rejected seven road improvement articles ($261,000) and approved three ($37,000); this came to an annual investment of only $13,400; in contrast the figure for summer maintenance has been $30,000 a year.
During the next five years, the road improvement program calls for resurfacing 11.14 miles of paved roads and improving 9.2 miles of the 17.78 miles of gravel roads; the total construction budget for this program is estimated to be $322,000 (at 1990 prices), a cost which will have to be financed out of local taxes (property and excise) and require both borrowing and mil rate increases.
The 1990 program includes resurfacing 1.7 miles of North Dixmont Road, improving .9 miles of gravel roads (Mitchell and Ward Hill), and continuing the rebuild of Barker (1.8 miles); the total cost including short-term debt service is estimated at $71,000; if raised entirely from property tax, would require a rate increase of $3 per $1,000 of valuation.
Maine Local Road Center. The major source of information and technical assistance available to municipal road committees is the Maine Local Roads Center. Not only does it provide videos and handbooks on the subject of roads, it also offers numerous workshops, including one of particular value to inventory-minded road committees: the Road Surface Management System.
According to the Center's publicity, the Road Surface Management System program will "help your municipality, whether it is as small as Meddybemps or as large as Lewiston . . . to develop a rational and well thought out method to manage its road surface work."
The system enables a municipality to rate the conditions of its roadways (both paved and unpaved) so that it can develop a management plan. Center Co-Director Coughlan stresses that it is not an engineering but rather a management tool that:
screens out those roads that need the most attention
determines what is the most beneficial material to repair it with given the cost and expected life of the road; and
prioritizes the work to be done.
The system can be picked up in a two-day hands-on, on-the-road workshop that the Center conducts around the state at a cost of $25 a day. The workshops will be conducted in Ellsworth, Machias and Rockport this spring. In late summer; early fall, the workshops will be conducted in Caribou, Guilford, Portland, Sanford, Farmington and Norway.
The program uses a laptop computer to in-put the data. But it can also be done manually on data collection sheets, says Coughlan. Once you have picked up the technique in the workshop, you can borrow the computers from your regional planning commission, the commissions are also gearing up to input the data from the collection sheets for a small fee, says Coughlan.
For a complete listing of their workshops. videos and publications. contact the Maine Local Roads Center, Technical Services Division, Maine Department of Transportation, Station 16, Augusta, Maine 04333, (207) 289 2151.
Maine Municipal Association. The Association's Municipal Roads Manual (updated 1989). which should be in every town office library, provides a legal approach to roads, focusing on the adoption and discontinuance of roads among other things. It also includes material on the duties and relationships between selectmen and road commissioners.
DOT Maintenance Division Offices. The maintenance supervisors in the seven DOT offices around the state (they are listed in the Municipal Roads Manual) are available to walk the roads and share some on-the-spot pointers on what to look for in terms of paving, ditching and culverts.
Maine Office of Comprehensive Planning. The 1986 publication "Capital Improvements Programming Guidebook for Maine Communities," is a good basic tool for developing a CIP.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to acknowledge those individuals who shared their insights and experiences with road committees to make this article possible. Leonard Dow of Albion, Brett Brubaker of Brooksuille, Gary Brown of China, Gilbert Poland of Cornville, William Somers of Hartford, Ronald Hodgdon of Mt. Vernon, Tom Nelson of New Sharon, Cathy Fuller of Palermo, David and Judy Rock of Troy, Michael Roy of Vassalboro, Patrician Mendes and Richard Mitman of Westport and Peter Coughlan of the Maine Local Roads Center.