County Road Commission Reviews Draft 2021 Budget

Road work completed by SJCRC during 2020 included repaving of this section of Holtom Road. (Dave Vago|Watershed Voice)

The St. Joseph County Road Commission (SJCRC) reviewed a draft budget for next fiscal year at a regular meeting Wednesday evening. Managing Director John Lindsey presented the draft to commission members with the caveat that they review it thoroughly and offer revisions before the next time they meet for a work session on December 16. The working 2021 draft budget currently includes a rough total of $12.5 million in projected revenues and $13.1 million in projected expenses.

Lindsey emphasized that the number are subject to change to more accurate figures before they are approved in two weeks. The difference of just under $600,000 would come from SJCRC’s fund balance, which stood at more than $7.3 million at the end of 2019 following a surplus achieved at the end of that year’s budget of more than $500,000.

Current-year spending could still produce a small deficit, and year-end funding totals from the state-level Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF), administered by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the County Roads Association (CRA) are likely to be impacted by the pandemic. However, Lindsey said he expects revenues for the remainder of the year to close any significant gaps.

The current available general fund balance is in considerable excess of typical, accepted best practices for public agencies. Such practices call for keeping an amount on hand equivalent to a certain percentage of the annual operating budget. 15 percent is a recommended minimum, and many agencies keep 20 percent on hand. That would equate of roughly $2.3 to $2.4 million. Lindsey said he prefers not to go below 25 percent.

Subject to change before December 16 are the various line items that make up the totals. In comments afterward, Lindsey said he believes revenue projections to be “pretty firm,” but some line items under expenditures could be adjusted. Expenditure categories include projects like paving, road upgrades, and bridge repairs. They also include primary road maintenance, local road maintenance, administrative costs, and capital outlays for things like equipment.

Bid Approved for Chip and Seal Oils

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, SJCRC members approved a bid from Bit-Mat Products of Ashley, Indiana for the oils and emulsions needed for 2021’s chip seal work. Chip sealing is a routine maintenance procedure SJCRC uses to prolong the life of asphalt-paved road surface. It involves spreading tar or a tar-like substance on the road surface, and then covering that with tiny pebbles. The treatment requires renewal after several years.

Over the course of 2020’s warm-weather road work season, SJCRC staff has been experimenting with several chip-seal treatments to determine which combinations produce the least ill effects like bleeding of tar and loss of pebbles. That has primarily involved adjusting the ratios of emulsion to pebbles, and Lindsey said even the tiniest adjustments can make a big difference.

However, Lindsey also said some emulsion materials seem to work better than others and have different physical properties. He said SJCRC would like to expand its use of, and experimentation with, alternatives.

The bid process allowed for pricing of six different types of emulsion, as well as for fog seal, which can be used as an additional sealant that further extends the life of the road surface. Each of the six materials has different properties with certain benefits. Some cost more per gallon, but also last longer. Bit-Mat’s bid included per-gallon prices for all six emulsion types.

SJCRC received one other bid from Michigan Paving and Materials of Monroe. That bid included a price for fog seal and only one emulsion price, for a substance called “HFRS2,” which has been the primary material SJCRC has used in recent years. Its bid for HFRS2 came in at $2.240 per gallon, compared to a $1.491 price from Bit-Mat. Its fog seal price was $1.750 per gallon, compared to $1.301 from Bit-Mat. Bit-Mat’s other materials pricing ranged between $1.341 and $2.181 per gallon. Both bids also included pricing for unloading of materials.

Bippus Receives Comments from Fellow Commissioners

Last month, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners voted not to reappoint John Bippus to the SJCRC, choosing instead Jack Coleman to fill the seat when it comes open at the beginning of 2021. Several SJCRC members said they would limit their comments and recognition Wednesday pending Bippus’ last meeting, which will be the work session on December 16.

However, Lindsey and several commissioners did offer preliminary comments. “John is the big reason we’re where we are today,” Lindsey said, referring to a number of operating efficiencies that have permitted the agency to accumulate a generous fund balance. Changes under Bippus’ influence have included a leaner fleet, workforce, and buildings infrastructure, Lindsey said.

Bippus said he was unaware, offhand, of how many boards he has served on, but SJCRC “has been the most fun.” SJCRC Chair Dave Allen said he would “miss John’s presence on the board,” and that Bippus was a “great mentor” when Allen first became a commissioner. Allen said he hoped to “be able to tap (Bippus’) expertise from time to time.”

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.