The Oneida County Highway Department will go one more season having its own employees do chip and seal work.
The county's highway committee voted 3-2 Thursday to continue the program for a fourth season.
The discussion leading up to the vote was lively and somewhat contentious as committee member Scott Holewinski, one of the dissenting voters along with committee member Mike Timmons, made it clear he wasn't happy with some of the chip and seal work done on county roads in 2018.
A proven tool
Oneida County highway commissioner Bruce Stefonek began the discussion by outlining the three options the county could pursue regarding its chip sealing program.
The first option was for the county to keep the 24-foot chip spreader it purchased for $144,000 back in 2015, which Stefonek said would generate revenue for the department by increasing the hours the spreader is used by contracting with towns and other counties and doing projects for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Option two would have the county selling the chip spreader to a neighboring county and renting the machine to chip seal the county's highways and those of other municipalities.
"This would enable the county to maintain their highways for less than the private sector would cost, maintain the revenue operating the balance of county-owned equipment, and maintain the highway budget," Stefonek wrote.
The third option was to sell the chip spreader and hire private sector companies to do the work, something Stefonek wouldn't endorse.
On a fact sheet distributed to committee members, he indicated that option would cost the county 15- to 20 percent more to do chip and seal work on its roads, which he said is the equivalent of one less mile of chip sealed road.
"Using the private sector would lessen the amount of revenue in the equipment fund," Stefonek wrote, noting that "the county will need the additional revenue for the employees and equipment" if it the area experiences another winter like the one recently completed.
He told the committee chip sealing is a "proven tool" to preserve county highways.
"Whether we do it, somebody else does it, the bottom line is I don't want to see chip seal go by the wayside," Stefonek said. "Almost all counties are doing it and so are surrounding states."
He also said the department has proven chip sealing can be done for less than companies in the private sector.
In looking at the numbers, Stefonek said the county's chip spreader needs to be operated 72 hours a year to break even. The hourly cost is just over $190.
"We did not achieve that last year," he said, telling the committee the machine had only 51.5 hours of use.
Stefonek's numbers include depreciation.
"Unless somebody has some other options, those are the options as I see them," he said.
'That road is shot'
"OK, you want me to go?" Holewinski said after Stefonek was through with his initial presentation. "We emphasize the equipment fund and making money in the equipment."
He then presented photos of Black Lake Road in the town of Newbold, which had chip and seal work done in 2018.
"See the cracking here?" Holewinski asked. "How well it held up through the winter?"
He then presented photos of chip and seal work done by a county highway crew on County Highway C in the Stella area in 2018.
"We paid $154,000 ... and that road is shot already," Holewinski said, drawing comparisons between the condition of Hwy. C and Black Lake Road, which was done by a private contractor.
"The striping is all gone," he said of Hwy. C. "The sides are all gone. It's cracked and we're being justified in saying, 'Well, with chip seal, we made money for the equipment fund,' but we just threw $154,000 out the window. I don't know how you expect ... just because we can run equipment and throw rock on oil, doesn't mean we chip seal. We don't have the knowledge of how to do stuff."
Committee chairman Robb Jensen asked Holewinski to clarify his remark about $154,000 being thrown away.
"That's what it cost us to chip seal (Hwy.) C last year," Holewinski said.
"So, all of C is bad?" Jensen asked, noting that he has driven parts of Crescent Road recently and some of it was in good shape and some of it was not so good.
"I'm not sure the parts that aren't are affecting my driving," he told Holewinski. "I understand what you're saying."
"Why do the chip sealing if it's gonna look like this when we're done?" Holewinski asked, referring to the photos. "Not even a year later?"
"I don't have all of this road in front of me to know whether that little picture is different three quarters of a mile down," Jensen said. "This is what I believe. Any given job, whether it's done by the private sector or the public sector, there are jobs that are done very well and sometimes weather affects you in your chip sealing and it starts to rain."
"You guys chose to not go look at 'em," Holewinski said. "There's no doubt in my mind that is a crappy job out there. That is a total waste of money what we did last year."
Jensen said he believes what is happening is as time goes on, counties involved in a consortium formed to do chip sealing work are getting better at it.
"They're learning how to do it," he said. "There's been a change in administration ... I believe you put people in positions now that are learning and becoming more knowledgeable on this process and it's worth the risk of balancing how do we build up and continue to improve revenue for the county - and there's a risk in that, Scott, I agree - a risk between private sector and public."
Holewinski wasn't convinced.
"Chip seal crews, that is all they do," he said. "Three months every summer and we do it for two weeks. You're not gonna tell me that you're gonna take these guys and train 'em in a short period of time."
Holewinski then referred again to one of the Hwy. C photos he brought with him.
"How many roads are we gonna do that are gonna look like this when they're done before we say it's a good job finally?" he asked.
Holewinski said he was not going to support Oneida County doing anymore chip sealing work based on what he's seen the past two years.
"It's a total mess out there," he said. "I won't support it. I will be looking at option three."
Timmons asked about warranty situations where an Oneida County chip and seal crew might have to redo work for another county or town.
"If we go out and do that kind of a job for anybody else, what warranty does the county have when they're doing the work?' he asked.
"Time and material," Holewinski said. "You pay 'em again."
Stefonek said he drove Hwy. C with a Fahrner Asphalt representative and was told the driving lanes are in fairly good shape.
"You look at the centerline and the edges and that's where the problem is," he said. "I already admitted at the last meeting the prep work was subpar. Otherwise, those cracks wouldn't be showing the way they're showing. I have other reasons for that."
Stefonek then addressed another issue - personnel.
"The high turnover rate that we've had ... we've got a lot of new guys on our force," he said. "There's been mistakes at all ends, you know. I was told to get the oil bid out first - we've got to be early on oil. Well, because we did that, we're paying too much for oil."
A neighboring county, Stefonek said, is paying 25 percent less than Oneida County for oil.
"You know, we're learning, every year," he said, reminding the committee that county finance director Darcy Smith recently warned against disposing of equipment that is making money for the county.
"That's especially true this year," Stefonek said. "After a severe winter, we're going to be doing less work for the DOT and even less on our roads because we don't have the money we did last year."
Jensen made a motion to continue with option one and committee member Ted Cushing said he would provide a second for discussion.
Holewinski remained unfazed.
"We talk about making money for the equipment fund and we waste it," he said. "You might as well go right back out and redo (Hwy.) C. Go out there and crack fill it, over band it, chip seal it and it would be done right. Spend another $154,000 and let 'em learn on that road again. You're justifying it, but you're wasting money."
Holewinski also mentioned a portion of Hwy. J he said was chip sealed in the rain a couple years ago and has come apart.
"They're not knowledgeable enough," he said. "I'm not willing to spend that kind of money to keep doing mistakes there."
A few minutes later Jensen raised a question about the impact on the equipment fund if the county would sell the chip spreader to another county.
"You can put all the money you want in that equipment fund," Holewinski said. "But if we have to keep going back out and redoing what we did, that's my problem. We've been doing this for three years and 2018 is the worst of them all. We're not getting better, we're getting worse."
Not going backwards
Stefonek acknowledged the situation with Hwy. C, but said the other road chip sealed last year, Hwy. G, "looks very nice."
"I have to go look at G," Holewinski said.
"G has a couple edges that are worn because the oil wasn't sprayed out to the edge," Stefonek said.
Jensen said he felt the concern is whether the quality of work is going to be acceptable.
"And there's a warranty with the private sector that comes with it," Holewinski said.
Along those lines, Jensen said he wasn't sure if he could vote on his motion without more information.
"If it went to another county and they quoted with the chip sealer, I think you'd have to bring back to this committee what kind of guarantees (would) the public sector give versus the private sector," he said.
"None," Holewinski maintained.
Stefonek said it would be county to county, time and materials.
"There is no warranty," he said.
"You pay twice," Holewinski chimed in.
Regarding Hwy. C, Stefonek said it needed to be crack-filled and then spray-patched.
Holewinski didn't seem happy with that, either. He reiterated that Hwy. C hadn't been prepped for chip seal work, something Stefonek said he acknowledged earlier.
The two continued to spar.
"Then why did we do it?" Holewinski asked.
"I'm not going backwards here," Stefonek said.
"Yeah, I know you're not going backwards," Holewinski replied.
'Right in the toilet'
Recently retired highway department employee Scott Tromp said he believes the situation is tied to the personnel issues Stefonek mentioned earlier.
"The failure, I think, is the fact that the county decided to go from a work crew that's capable of number three quality work and we jumped all the way to something that needs guys that do number 10 quality work," he said. "When the guys aren't prepared to do all the prep work real well and it's not getting done, I don't think it matters how good they are or good they are at the chip sealing. They're not ready for it."
Tromp said he agreed three years is enough time for the workers to learn how to perform satisfactory work.
But, he said, there would be 12 people on a limited term employment status for the summer "to go out and tar."
"The quality of the work was right in the toilet," Tromp said. "Chip sealing over that kind of work is going to be a failure no matter how it's done."
He said he believes it was time to step back and look at what he called "the big picture."
"Where does the county put its efforts now that the work crews are so small?" Tromp asked. "I'm sorry, I don't want to insult the guys, but they're rather green in their ability and we're hoping these guys can go from that lower level ability to upper level ability and in the meantime, the work suffers."
Cushing noted that 40 people left Oneida County employment in 2018.
"How many do you think left the highway department?" he asked. "28. That's a big turnover of people. I'm trying to rationalize how we're going to keep this (chip seal program) but with that kind of turnover, how are we going to train anyone to do the work?"
Holewinski said it was more than a maintenance issue.
"This needs a full- time crew that does this all summer long," he said. "They know the ins and outs and is that crew gonna screw up? Yes, they do but they go back and they redo the road."
Jensen said he doesn't believe the county's workforce "doesn't have the motivation and a willingness and a desire to do quality work."
"I support option one because I think option two is gonna come at us anyway," he said. "I've got faith in our people and our management team to do it right."
Cushing said he could be talked into one more year with the program.
"One more attempt," he said. "We don't get it right this year, sell the damn thing and be done with it," he said.
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at bjopek@lakelandtimes .com.
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