Jeremy Gaston/Herald-Chronicle
With the primary election just a month away, road unit signs have superseded those for candidates alongside Osage County roads.

Wayne White | Managing Editor

LYNDON—One thing everyone seems to agree on is that with an election next month, voters should have more information about the possible conversion to a county unit road maintenance system.

Osage County commissioners met again Monday with Perry Thompson, Osage City, and Chuck Sypher, Vassar, who were seeking more information about the county’s plans to convert to the county unit system if approved by voters Aug. 3.

Osage County Commissioner Ken Kuykendall clarified that some information sought from townships had not yet been obtained by the county’s auditor, who is to help develop two county budgets – one that includes maintenance of township roads by the county and another that does not include township road maintenance. Although several townships have not readily volunteered to provide equipment lists, Kuykendall said fault does not rest entirely on the townships. Some delay in obtaining the information was due to lack of communication with the appropriate person on the township board, he explained.

In regard to one township, “nobody ever called them, they’ve left messages and stuff,” Kuykendall said.

“By statute if this thing passes, all equipment and finances left in each township have to be spent in that township,” Kuykendall said. “So to make a legitimate budget for the first year, the county needs to know what each township has.”

Thompson questioned, “So you’re having trouble putting the budget together?”

“We’re not having trouble putting a budget together,” Kuykendall said. “This is how budgets get put together.”

He said that whether or not the county receives the information before the election, budgets would still be developed even if estimates of township equipment must be used.

But, Kuykendall said, the needed time to gather the information is one reason he wanted the election to be held at the general election in November instead of during next month’s primary election, “so we could have had good budgets.” He said the election date was set by state statute and could not be postponed.

Questioned by Ken Dubois, Burlingame, about whether commissioners had developed a plan to take over the road maintenance on Aug. 4, the day after the election, Kuykendall said commissioners have not approved a plan, but have had numerous discussions of possible plans.

“We have lots of plans, we have stacks of plans,” Kuykendall said. “Where does this stuff about no plans come from … there’s 65 counties doing it the county unit way now … it’s not rocket science. We’ve had plans, we’ve discussed about plans. Have we voted on plans? No. It’s premature for us to vote on a plan until Aug. 3. We are not going to vote on any plan until we know what this is coming to.”

Questioned about where the “stacks of plans” were located, Kuykendall said they were in county road and bridge supervisor Glen Tyson’s office.

After the meeting, The Osage County Herald-Chronicle requested access to the plans from Tyson, who said there were no plans in his office except a map he presented during the meeting. He said the only discussions with commissioners about plans for county unit involved Tyson sharing his personal knowledge of county unit road systems he had obtained through conversations with officials in other counties.

During Monday’s meeting, Tyson showed a county road map on which he had designated 12 districts. He explained the districts were developed according to the amount of gravel roads, county roads, township roads and blacktop roads in each.

“Basically, I was trying to end up with 12 to 15 miles of county roads for each (road grader) blade to handle,” Tyson said, noting his plan included about 85 miles of roads in each district.

Tyson said his plan included one road grader for each district. He said other counties he conferred with assigned about 100 miles per grader.

“My assumption is we’re probably going to need more graders in the beginning, but in a few years maybe eliminate some,” Tyson said.

Questioned by spectators at the meeting, commissioners said the county owns five road graders, three of which are used regularly, one is used for a backup, and another is used primarily for snow removal. To have one grader in each district, nine more road graders would be needed, Tyson said, but the extra equipment is expected to come from the townships.

“If you have nine more graders, there will have to be nine operators hired,” he said later.

Kuykendall said it was possible that the county would hire former township employees “to run for a while.”

“We have to wait to see how the election turns out before the county spends a lot of money hiring different people,” Kuykendall said.

Osage County Commissioner Mike Pruitt said that if voters approve the change, “any money acquired from equipment or money left over goes back into that township for two years.”

Commissioners noted that state law allows for a two-year transition period if a county converts to county unit. During the first few months of the transition period, the county will likely follow the townships’ budgets that cover the remainder of the calendar year, commissioners agreed.

Pressed by Thompson, the commissioners agreed that county taxpayers should see a savings by converting to the county unit system, but an exact amount was unknown.

“The point of all these plans is, for awhile, you’re going to make adjustments constantly,” Kuykendall said. “There will be a transition period figuring out the best way to do stuff.”

Osage County Commissioner Carl Meyer said the goal of converting to county unit was efficiency.

“If it does go to county unit, we will do everything possible to make it effective and work,” Meyer said.

Thompson pointed out that 12 of the county’s 16 townships had raised tax levies in this year’s budgets, and inquired how the township system could continue without raising taxes.

Jim Foster, Elk Township road maintainer, replied that fuel and road gravel prices had also gone up over the past few years, requiring increases in revenue. Commissioners agreed increases in road maintenance expenses in recent years have also affected the county.

“The only way the county or the township has to raise more money is to raise taxes,” Kuykendall said. “It just proves nobody knows what their tax is going to be.”

Foster questioned if commissioners had considered how the change would “affect people who live in the city and businesses within that city who are going to get a significant tax increase.”

Kuykendall said that over time, taxpayers should see a savings due to the consolidation of services, but initially, “property tax for everybody in townships will go down … and most of the cities will go up.”

“Osage City’s the one’s that really going to get whacked,” he said.

In discussion of possible savings, Meyer said centrally locating equipment would provide efficiencies. With questions about whether the county would need to acquire more storage and parking areas, Kuykendall said he wanted to dispel a rumor he had heard.

“We have not discussed building a new (road and bridge) shop,” he said. “We’re not doing this on some conspiracy to build a $13 million shop.”

Referring to centralizing equipment, Thompson offered to provide space for county equipment.

“I’ve got places in and around Osage City you can use for free to park stuff,” Thompson said.

Foster noted the possibility the issue will not be approved by voters, and asked if commissioners had any plans if the vote fails.

“If this doesn’t pass, there is still power within the county to shift boundary lines of townships,” Foster said. “If you combine townships, we could still end up with the type of program we’re trying to establish now, so there are other solutions.”

Kuykendall said he was not ready to consider other solutions until after the election. He said he ran his campaign for his county commissioner seat in support of the county unit issue, in part due to the poor roads in his township, Barclay Township.

“I will submit Barclay is probably the worst township in Osage County as far as the roads go,” Kuykendall said.

“I don’t think it’s about roads being good or bad,” Thompson said. “The cost of road maintenance is currently too high.”

He said he believed that savings for taxpayers have been underestimated, and not all the efficiencies that could be provided by county unit are being considered.

That information and the amount of expected tax levies was the type of information the public needed before the election, citizens at the meeting agreed.

“We have not gotten to that point in the budget yet,” Kuykendall said.

Sypher said he was disappointed that answers could not be obtained.

“People in all the towns need to have the true facts and the people in the country need to have true facts,” Sypher said. “By having this election, we don’t really have the time to get the true facts to the people.”