Shrinking availability of state and federal grants means that Stevens County likely won’t be taking on any major transportation improvement projects over the next six years, according to Stevens County Public Works Director, Jim Whitbread. Instead, the county will be focusing on maintenance and projects it can do itself, as outlined in the county’s new Six-Year Transportation plan.
Whitbread said this approach is an effort to be fiscally prudent until grant monies again become available.
“Normally, the state and federal government have grant opportunities for infrastructure projects every two years and we have aggressively pursued those funds that have allowed us to take on projects like new bridges,” Whitbread explained.
“But those opportunities are not available right now, so we plan to address maintenance while doing what my dad called ‘keeping enough bacon and potatoes’ in the cellar. Since my dad knew what it was like to be hungry, they always kept enough of those things in the cellar to live on, just in case. And that’s kind of what we are doing with the Public Works budget. We are making sure we have enough money to do our basic functions like plow roads and do maintenance work and run the county landfill.”
Despite the current pause on big transportation projects, the department has made notable progress on infrastructure through state and federal grant funds by completing 26 different projects in the last 10 years, including reconstructing 90 miles of county roads, replacing six bridges, and installing 15 miles of guardrail.
Whitbread noted this was made possible by entering competitive proposals that won over $29 million in state and federal grant dollars.
The Stevens County Public Works Department, which includes the county landfill, also constructed a $3.6 million landfill expansion cell and a $3.5 million road maintenance shop in Chewelah. The landfill expansion project was funded through a 0.5 percent interest loan from the Public Works Trust Fund and the maintenance shop project was also funded with local dollars.
Whitbread said the public works department will wait for grant dollars in order to tackle bigger infrastructure problems because going into debt over those items is not advantageous.
“We have watched the state bond itself to its limit in terms of transportation projects and now won’t be able to take on new projects for some time,” he said. “If the county started taking out loans for major projects, the length of time it would take us to pay back those dollars would be outrun by the depreciation period. Basically, things would start to wear out before we could ever pay them off. It would also cripple our cash flow.
“I believe you should pay your bills on time and shouldn’t owe any money,” Whitbread said. “That strategy has done well for our department.”
By not taking on extra debt and projects, Whitbread said the county is able to save taxpayers money by tackling smaller projects, like road resurfacing and chip and seal projects, through in-house efforts.
“For the next six years, we are taking on maintenance projects of one to three miles that we can do with our own crew and manpower,” he said. “By doing so, the county is not obligated to pay the higher prevailing wages that are required when we contract with a third party. That is a significant savings to taxpayers.”
‘Bang for the buck’
The federal Davis-Bacon law, or the prevailing wage law, requires any government entity to pay “prevailing wages” as determined by the state on all projects. The Washington State prevailing wage for general labor, for instance, is $30 an hour. Stevens County is able to pay a wage more adjusted to county revenue of $20.56 an hour when they do in-house projects.
“What we give our customers is a very good bang for their buck,” said Whitbread. “We have not laid off one employee since the downturn because we were planning for it in advance. We have the same number of employees (67) that we did back in 1972. We don’t see county residents as taxpayers, but customers…we are working to do our best for them.”
The following is a list of road maintenance projects the county has outlined for the next six years:
*Rehabilitate, widen and pave a total of six miles of Aladdin Road through two projects.
*Widen, improve the base and re-pave a five mile section of Blue Creek Road.
*Complete a pavement preser¬vation project on Gardenspot Road.
*Widen a total of six miles of south Swenson Road through two projects.
*Complete a chip and seal project on Flowery Trail Road.
*Complete a chip and seal project on Williams Lake/Orin Rice Roads.
For more details on these projects and their start/end dates, contact the Stevens County Public Works Department at 684-4548.