Anywhere you go in a rural community, a hot topic among its citizens is usually the maintenance of its dirt roads. Since The Crossroads Chronicle’s first edition in mid-January, several citizens have requested a report on how Emanuel’s dirt roads are maintained. In response to those requests, The Chronicle first looked for input from citizens.
The issues as told by citizens are wide-ranging in nature. One man, Kelly Kirkland of Union Chapel Road, mentioned the removal of a concrete culvert, causing washouts. Two others, Vickie Hughes Harbin and Lisa Hammock, cited low-quality or absent ditching as well as washboard-like surfaces.
In fairness, The Chronicle also looked to County Administrator Guy Singletary on Monday to get grasp on what goes on behind the scenes with the Emanuel County Road Department. Right away, he acknowledged that complaints about dirt roads aren’t unusual—but those kind of complaints aren’t happening in Emanuel alone.
“It doesn’t matter where you go. Every community says their dirt roads aren’t maintained well. I ride a lot of dirt roads, many of which are in other counties. I say that to say every county has dirt roads that are in good shape and dirt roads that are in bad shape,” he said. “Our county road department works extremely hard and does their best to maintain one of the largest road systems in Georgia.”
Singletary went on to give a few statistics about that system. Reportedly, there are 900 miles of dirt and paved roads here in Emanuel. More than 600 of those 900 miles are dirt. Given the fact there are ditches, brush, and debris on both sides of the roadway, that actually means there are 1,200 miles of dirt road that must be maintained by the county road department. (For perspective, that’s the distance from Swainsboro to Loraine, Texas. A map is included with this story to show exactly what part of Texas that town is located in.)
Emanuel, Singletary added, also has one of the largest fleets for a county its size with 10 motor graders at the ready. Six of those are constantly scraping, two are ditchers, and two are used for special projects.
Throughout the interview, Singletary often drew comparisons between Emanuel and Bulloch, Laurens, and Burke.
In terms of staffing, the local road department has 27 employees, including two superintendents. The County of Emanuel designated $1.6 million in maintenance and operation for the road department in FY2020, and around 75 percent of that amount went to personnel costs. (Capital costs like equipment are funded through grants and special programs like SPLOST, TSPLOST, etc.)
Comparably, the other three counties have upward of at least 75 employees working for their respective road departments. The latest data about those counties’ road department budgets were unavailable at press time, but The Chronicle was able to determine through the Tax and Expenditure Data (TED) Center for Georgia governments, a service of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia (ted.cviog.uga.edu), that Bulloch County designated $2.7 million for its road department in 2016.
Singletary estimates the County of Emanuel spends just $2,000 per mile while counties comparable in size but with larger budgets, he said, probably spend in the ball park of $5,000 per mile.
“When you compare the amount of money we spend on our county road department to that of counties with road systems the size of ours, I think we get a lot of bang for our buck here,” Singletary said. “We could easily allocate more money to that part of our budget by purchasing more equipment or putting on more crews, but that money has to come from somewhere. We do what we can to fund as much as possible through grants and programs, but maintenance and operation costs—that comes down to your taxes. We try to be conservative, and we don’t want to raise anyone’s taxes.”
One inquiry that has been asked many times by citizens addresses that of employees’ training. About that particular concern, Singletary said, “We’re not immune to constant turnover of employees that the rest of the world has. We have some employees who have been with us for a long time; they’ve made a career with us. They’re fine operators. I won’t say we have bad operators. We do have some operators that are young and inexperienced, but they’re learning to run the equipment. When we hire an operator, we don’t put them on a grader and say, ‘You get to spend the next three months driving circles around the road department until you learn to run this machine.’ That’s not what happens. They go straight out on the road, work with an experienced operator who helps them learn how to use the machine. Unfortunately, right now... In the world we live in, we have a few positions that are on constant rotation.”
He continued, “Another thing I’d like to say is that at one point in time, we hired operators who at least had experience driving a tractor. Nowadays, that’s not the always the case. When we hire operators today, they typically require a significantly different amount of training than what we’ve had to do in the past. More and more, when we have a vacancy within the department, we’re hiring people with little to no experience whatsoever, so they need more training. That makes it all the more important that we have some great operators on our staff to show the new hires the ropes.”
New hires, he added, are always urged to focus on performing quality maintenance when out in the field as opposed to the quantity of miles they cover.
Another point often made when discussions of the county road department arise is the number of employees in the past compared to the number of employees with the department today. Singletary stated the budget hasn’t grown enough to keep up with salaries. Consequently, positions have been either combined or eliminated over time. Nonetheless, he says the county road department isn’t providing any less service now than when the staff was almost double in size years ago.
Next, Singletary discussed with The Chronicle the order in which roads are addressed. The county administrator explained there is a route for the superintendents and their crews to follow. Should an emergency situation come up, those crews are re-routed as quickly as possible.
One other contributing factor Singletary mentioned is the various soil types prevalent throughout Emanuel. Some areas here are sand-laden while others are made up of clay, or perhaps both. This makes training and maintenance a little trickier in comparison to counties that have just one soil type.
When crews are out performing regular maintenance, they use what Singletary referred to as “erosion control,” meaning they try to sculpt the roads so that water runoff goes to the appropriate place while maintaining the ditches, among other important day-to-day tasks.
On that note, one point Singletary wished to stress to the public is that maintaining Emanuel’s dirt roads is just a small portion of what the department does. They are also responsible for cleaning the growth of brushes, tending to road signs, replacing culverts and pipes, addressing potholes, and even busting beaver dams, just to name a few tasks most people don’t associate with this particular county department.
In regard to how often roads in the county are worked on and the type of maintenance done at the time of the visit, Singletary advised the following: ditches aren’t pulled year-round because the winter months are too wet. The same can be said during times when there has been lots of rainfall at once. When crews do make it to a particular area, they do their best to make sure the roadway is left in the best condition possible to make it easily and steadily passable until their next trip around.
All in all, he says he’s proud of the effort that goes into the county road system from all the road department employees.
“I’d like to say this: it’s easy to complain sometimes. Just know we’re a dirt road county and we realize that. We work every day to address the issues we know are out there, and we do our best to make sure whatever issues are brought to our attention are addressed quickly. Are there some things we could do better? Sure there are, and we’re always trying to improve our operation.
“I’d like to end on this: our employees—they do the best they can do. They choose to work for Emanuel County Road Department. They’re just like everybody else... They pay taxes, have families, have hopes and dreams and ambitions. This is a means of a paycheck. We’re fortunate they’re with us and want to serve their community. When there’s an issue, please be considerate in how it’s addressed because they’re doing the best they can do.”