Boone County commissioners strongly disagree about the extent of problems at the Public Works Department under David Mink and about potential remedies.
Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin believes that Mink provides the commission with incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information on roads projects and that information given to the public is even worse.
“Accountability to the commission is one issue,” Elkin said. “But what really matters is accountability to the public, and we fall short in that area. I am not just pointing the finger at Mink, but at myself and the entire commission.”
Elkin said accountability is particularly important since the Public Works Department is funded by a special half-cent sales tax that was approved by voters in 1993 and renewed in 1998. Commissioners plan to put it back on the ballot in 2007.
Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre and Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller are on the other side of the debate. They say it’s important to realize that only a portion of the tax, which is projected to raise $9.92 million in 2004, represents new public works revenue.
A portion of the tax replaces money lost when the county agreed to reduce the property tax that used to pay for road projects from 29 cents to five cents. Another part of the money is dispersed to cities and to special road districts to pay for their road projects.
Schnarre said the commission knows exactly how the Public Works spends its money, and that the department has improved drastically under Mink.
“We know exactly what goes on at public works,” Schnarre said. “There is nothing that goes on that the commission doesn’t know about.”
“It’s a more professional, better-managed department than it was five years ago,” he said.
Elkin, however, said that he is not happy with the department’s direction, and he wants Mink fired.
“I have talked to many voters and to the laborers in the Public Works
Department, and there is a consensus that it’s time to get some new leadership in there and get a fresh start,” Elkin said.
Quantifying Mink’s performance since he became public works director in October 2000 is nearly impossible. Various documents about the department’s performance show inconsistencies.
In fiscal 2002, for example, the department either promised to complete eight safety projects or it promised to do 10.
How many were completed — 10 or seven — depends on whether you’re reading Mink’s budget presentations to the commission, the county’s annual budget or the department’s annual reports.
Neither Mink nor commissioners can fully explain the discrepancies. Mink said it’s possible the annual report overlooked all the safety projects the department completed.
Reporting errors, however, don’t explain all the discrepancies between the objectives of the department’s Road and Bridge Maintenance Division and the work completed. In 2001, Mink’s first full year on the job, the department came up short on its goals for asphalt paving and for maintenance of gravel roads. In 2002 it came up considerably short on its goal for chip-and-seal projects.
In 2003, the department failed to complete three of 12 safety projects. And again, it came up short on chip-and-seal maintenance, completing only 10.9 of the 18 miles of roads it identified as needing the work. That shortfall occurred even after department officials had scaled back the goals, deciding chip-and-seal reapplications should be done only every three years, instead of every two.
Varying explanations have been used to explain the problems: sometimes its weather, and sometimes its workers’ absentee rates. Mink recently said it is multiple factors that prevent the department from meeting its goals.
“There are a lot of things that combined to cause us not to complete all the projects we planned,” Mink said of 2003. “Weather is a factor, equipment availability and failure is a factor, and staff availability is a factor.”
Staff availability is an explosive issue. Laborers don’t deny that the absentee rate among county workers averaged 17 percent in 2003.
The labor agreement approved in February stipulates workers must work 40 hours in a week before accruing overtime; anything over eight hours a day qualified before.
The laborers, backed by Elkin, said that change was unnecessary and deflected attention from the poor scheduling and lack of communication that continue to cause problems.
Union steward Greg Mullanix said work crews are stifled by mismanagement.
“A supervisor will tell you you’re supposed to go here to meet another crew, and then you go there and sit for three hours looking stupid. And the crew never shows up, and they never call you to tell you you’re supposed to be somewhere else,” he said.
Schnarre, however, said the time off workers could earn under the old agreement hurt productivity. He said the contract changes are one of Mink’s crowning achievements.
Mink has also improved decision-making about which roads to upgrade, Schnarre said. The department previously used traffic counts to determine which surfaces to improve, but now considers other factors, such as whether a road is part of a school bus route. Miller said those changes brought consistency and fairness to decisions.
Schnarre also praised Mink’s selection of Chip Estabrooks as a new maintenance operations manager. He said Mink is working on a database system that will better track progress on roads projects. Miller said the database will be most helpful in tracking costs associated with the use of in-house labor versus contractors, something the department has not had a handle on. As a general rule, in-house labor does routine maintenance while contractors do major capital improvements.
Mink’s department still needs to improve long-range planning, Schnarre said, so that difficulties such as securing right-of-way don’t delay progress on road work. Schnarre also said it’s important to realize that in addition to the Road and Bridge Maintenance Division, Mink also has responsibility over the two other divisions in the department.
“This is the third division that he is working on,” Schnarre said. “He’s made improvements to the Facilities Maintenance Division and to Design and Construction. In the past 18 months, he’s realized that he needed to make a lot of improvements to the Roads Maintenance Division, but already that department is making great progress under his leadership.”
Elkin, however, said he has not seen evidence of all these improvements and that the other commissioners are diverting from the real issue.
“There is major turmoil between the laborers and the management in the Public Works Department,” Elkin said. “Until we resolve that and face that, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug and ignore it, we’re not going to see the type of progress … that we would all like to see.”