ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Belmont County Engineer Fred Bennett spoke with the Times Leader concerning his department's budgetary issues, funding and priorities for 2013.
Bennett noted the primary sources of income including license plate fees, totalling about $2,042,000 last year. Permissive tax generated an added $230,000. The gasoline tax generated $2,290,000. Another $85,000 was derived from fines collected by the court for speeding and other offenses.
Bennett noted that the gas tax income decreased by $20,000 since motorists are driving less and cars are becoming more efficient, although there are more cars on the road. He added that this has affected the income of federal and state governments as well. However, he noted that money the county has received from license plate fees has increased by more than $50,000.
"It broke about even," he said.
Bennett said the auditor calculates the yearly budget by taking the amount of money spent last year and deducting carryover purchase orders. Since the engineer's department may not pay bills from the first of December to mid-January, the purchase orders must be written beforehand.
A total of $4,881,000 was certified at the beginning of the year, to be set aside to fund such needs as insurance, PERS, salaries and equipment.
"The problem has been our income has stayed pretty stagnant, but prices just keep going up," he said, adding that one measure to curtail expenses was the reduction of full-time employees to 41 compared to 50 employees in 2008. Bennett noted that in 1976 the department had 96 employees.
"We've got fewer people to do the work," he said. "It hurts on our maintenance end."
Bennett added that employees are always out on projects including roadwork, snow plowing, building bridges, cutting weeds and patching potholes.
"We're able to cover everything," he said, however this has meant in a delay in projects such as bridgework during winter when snow plowing must take priority.
Bennett noted other complications, such as the increased price of blacktop.
"20 ago we could pave a mile of road for about $30,000, now we're $80-$90,000," he said, adding that material, labor and insurance costs also increased. "Everything keeps going up except the income."
In addition, the law requires projects of $100,000 or more require a contract.
"We're at the point where we can't cut anymore. We just need more income," he said, adding that federal and state funding has been secured for some of the larger projects.
This year's projects include the replacement of bridges, traffic signals and guard rails. The commissioners have also funded the re-painting of center lines on several county highways, with contracting for the striping to begin April.
Bennett noted other routine maintenance such as culvert replacement and pothole filling. He added that oil and gas companies paved some roadways last year.
He added that the public has voiced concerns about the state of roads and bridges and the need for road paving and center line marking. However, bridges take the first priority.
"We've got bridges school buses can't cross," he said. "Fuel trucks can't get fuel to their homes without a lot of inconvenience."
In the last 10 years, about 100 bridges have been built, for a total of about 280 bridges. County employees are also responsible for 308 miles of roadway.
"We're doing the best we can with the money we have."
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org