Better government through cooperation

Friday, November 4, 2011
Managing editor Murray Bishoff

If it seems strange that Washington, D.C., never changes, look no farther than Barry and Lawrence counties. If there ever was a chance to coordinate resources, it's here.

Both counties still have two dozen rural road districts. This is a phenomenal solution to a widely shared problem.

In times when money is tight and oil prices are painful, collaborating to find savings makes more sense than ever.

We have appealed in this space for the county commissioners, some of whom know a great deal about road districts, to help show the way. They have chosen not to do that, taking the position that it's not their problem. Messing with other political subdivisions is never easy and often unpopular.

Unfortunately, the lack of leadership has only left the road district commissioners doing what they've always done, without a vision of how to do it better.

It's time to think outside the proverbial box.

Part of the challenge comes from how the road districts do their jobs. There is little consensus on how to maintain chip and seal roads. Different contractors use varying depths of rocks. Freistatt blades on a new surface while others pour down rocks and spray oil over them.

To their credit, both counties now allow road districts to sign up for chip and seal surfacing on a contract bid by the counties. This strategy provides some uniformity in the final product, but it hasn't brought the road districts closer together.

There is no doubt that local leadership has helped make rural roads better. Neighborhood watchfulness has helped identify problems and made sure they got fixed. No one wants to lose that. If savings are available, they must be elsewhere.

The best approach would be for road district commissioners to begin attending each other's meetings, at least at one nearby district. Learn each other's strategies. Share ideas. Look at each other's bookkeeping. Seek out ways where the two districts can work together, perhaps using the same bookkeeper or hiring each other's crews. See if supplies can be purchased together or audits bid together.

The closer two road districts can work together, the clearer it will become where potential savings lie. When it makes sense to merge, for the mutual benefit of both, then consolidation of road districts will be easy.

The immediate goal should be to seek out savings. Once districts find there is a better way, others will see it and try it as well. It will take courage to try and build up trust between road district leaders. It's time for the first step.