Two bills that recently passed the state House are raising questions about whether Michigan’s county road commissions will retain their autonomy.
The legislation comes on the heels of Gov. Rick Snyder saying that road commissions are “unneeded.” He has suggested giving counties the option of usurping control over their road commissions or consolidating them.
“It’s an option, they don’t have to do it,” said state Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Orchard Lake), who voted in favor of the legislation. “Our road commission in Oakland County is doing a great job and I don’t see why anyone would want to get rid of it, but unfortunately there a number of counties in upper Michigan where that’s not the case. Now they could eliminate theirs if they feel they don’t serve the public.”
Under House Bills (HBs) 5125 and 5126, the powers, duties and functions of an appointed Board of County Road Commissioners may be transferred to the county Board of Commissioners via resolution, meaning the Board of County Road Commissioners would then be dissolved. As a result, the county Board of Commissioners would be granted the authority to receive and expend road funds as allowed under state statute.
“It would be an overwhelming job and would be politicized. I wouldn’t be in favor of that,” said Oakland County Commissioner Jim Runestad (R-White Lake, Waterford). “There’s an argument for and against it. There’s the thinking that if there’s one executive responsible for roads then the populace would have one person accountable. On the other hand, some want to make sure resources are not politicized.”
Runestad added that the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) does an outstanding job with the resources they’re given.
“They do the best they can with the resources they have and look at our real needs and make the best decisions for the county,” Runestad said.
In a county where its county road commissioners are elected, any decision to change the status quo would need to be voted on by the electorate.
In Oakland County, the RCOC is governed by a three-member board appointed by the county Board of Commissioners to six-year terms. One member is appointed every two years.
Although the RCOC board is appointed by the county Board of Commissioners, the RCOC is separate from the county’s general government. The Board of Road Commissioners establishes RCOC policies, administers its own budget and hires the road commission’s managing director.
“We take issue with the county taking over the road commission by a simple vote from the county board,” said RCOC Spokesperson Craig Bryson. “Every single road commission in all 83 counties was created by a vote of the people, whether their commissioners are elected or appointed, and if eliminated, it should be by the vote of the people, like they did in Wayne and Macomb counties.”
State Reps. Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake, Wixom), Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield), Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland), Bill Rogers (R-Milford) and Moss voted in favor of both bills, but state Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield, Commerce, Wolverine Lake) voted against the bills.
Both Rogers and Kowall touted the RCOC’s efforts, but voted in favor of the legislation because other counties aren’t as fortunate.
“The language in the bill is permissive and gives other road commissions the tools needed for their own particular situations,” Kowall said. “Our road commission in Oakland County is doing a great job, especially with the resources it’s given.”
“I voted yes to help colleagues with the major controversy ongoing with boards and road commissions in other counties. That doesn’t affect us here,” Rogers said.
The County Road Association of Michigan worked alongside legislators on amendments to the bills before passing them, but House leadership wouldn’t discuss them, according to Bryson.
“One of the amendments was that before taking over a road commission, a thorough audit be conducted to see what costs would be inherited for transparency’s sake,” Bryson said.
The RCOC views the legislation as another attempt to shift funding to the taxpayer.
“We think it’s a rehashing of what (former Gov. John) Engler did in the 1990s to shift funding onto the locals,” Bryson explained. “The road commission has no taxing authority, but counties do. By moving the jurisdiction to the counties, it forces counties to raise property taxes to fund roads.”
However, if that is the motive, shifting the jurisdiction to the county more than likely would not address the funding problem, according to the RCOC.
“Roads in Michigan have been under-funded for 40 years,” Bryson said, adding that there is currently $20 million in equipment needs and millions of dollars in back-logged projects in Oakland County, all of which are on the back burner due to funding constraints. “Inheriting this would be a huge liability.”
While the RCOC is not panicked about any changeover in the foreseeable future, the possibility exists if the legislation passes the state Senate.
“(Oakland County Executive L.) Brooks (Patterson) has no desire to take us over, and if anyone studies the issue, they wouldn’t want to,” Bryson said. “We don’t think there would be an immediate response, but there could be in the future.”
As a former Livingston County commissioner, Rogers said he can’t see Oakland County taking over the RCOC.
“I tend to doubt the commissioners here want to take that on,” Rogers said. “It’s not for the weak of heart.”
Currently the rapport between the RCOC and the Oakland County Board of Commissioners is amiable and interactive, but if there was a change in leadership on the county board, the RCOC’s days could be numbered, Runestad said.
“If a different group of people were elected to the board, the dynamic could very well change — you don’t know,” he said.
Other RCOC responsibilities that would be under the control of the county Board of Commissioners, if they opted to take it over, include the maintenance of the county road system, construction of new county roads and the improvement of existing county roads.
Runestad said a move to take control over the RCOC would be a daunting undertaking.
“In Oakland County, if (the county board) were to take over the RCOC, it would be highly politicized and the politics would weigh in on every decision,” he said.
“The House pushed it through without debating some of the amendments we proposed, but we understand they are being more deliberative in the Senate,” Bryson said. “We’ll see.”
The two bills, which are tie-barred, are currently in the hands of the state Senate Transportation Committee.
Brown did not respond to a request for comment prior to press time.