NORTH VERNON — This year will mark the test run of a unified Jennings County Highway Department. It’s next year when the organizational changes are supposed to provide a path to sizable savings.
The Jennings County Commissioners voted Jan. 24 to merge three separate highway departments in the county. They project the change will result in a $250,000 reduction in expenditures for the county.
Jennings County Commissioners President Matt Sporleder said money will be saved in three areas — diesel fuel, equipment and bridges.
“You have to look at the whole picture to determine all the savings,” he said.
Before last month’s vote, each commissioner’s district had a highway department, and each had its own foreman, crew and equipment.
Sporleder said he believed that setup stemmed from politics.
“When you have two commissioners from one party and one commissioner from the other, the lame duck will always say they aren’t getting their fair share. But since money has dried up all over, we have to take politics out of it and save money,” Sporleder said.
The vote for consolidation came three weeks after Republicans Dave Lane and Bob Willhite replaced Democrats Jeff Day and Jeff Barger as commissioners. Sporleder also is a Republican.
Willhite and Lane agreed to Sporleder’s proposal for consolidation last month, under the condition that the changes be reviewed after one year.
The consolidation includes the appointing District 2 foreman Jim Reeves as county highway superintendent. Sporleder said Reeves will be able to establish needs and priorities on a countywide basis, rather than for just one district.
Reeves said he anticipates the biggest savings will come from having his men work to either repair or replace 51 deteriorating bridges, instead of hiring private contractors to do the work.
Sporleder said the county eliminated the full-time bridge crew more than a decade ago, which resulted in several bridges either being closed or placed under weight restrictions. Those restrictions have resulted in a number of students who have to spend as much as two additional hours each day on buses, according to Jennings County school officials.
While there are a few projects too large or complex for his crew, Reeves said, his department will have both the time and expertise to do most of the necessary bridge work.
“Four (bridges) have been done,” he said. “One of the guys has done bridge work for another contractor, and so have I.”
The next bridge scheduled for replacement is on County Road 600S in Lovett Township, according to Reeves. He also expressed optimism that his crews will be able to repair a second bridge this year on County Road 200N, south of Butlerville.
“The bridges will only take a handful of men, so road maintenance will still be handled,” Reeves said.
In regard to fuel-cost savings, Sporleder noted that each foreman previously was allowed to buy fuel for their equipment on their own terms.
“One district in particular had gas cards as a local filling station, so they were buying fuel at the same price as everyone else,” Sporleder said.
The county plans to purchase an 8,000- to 10,000-gallon fuel tank and seeks bids for fuel for the entire department at the lowest possible cost, Sporleder said.
Both Reeves and Sporleder noted that, prior to consolidation, each district requested machinery upgrades without sufficient knowledge of the condition of identical equipment outside their area.
But with the merger, Sporleder said, each machine will be judged to determine whether replacement or repairs will be the most cost-effective solution at the time.
“We’ll try to buy a new piece of equipment each year and keep the other two going,” Sporleder said. “That will be a huge savings.”
He added the county already has saved $57,500 over the past month by evaluating a Bobcat skid-steer and a small, single-axle dump truck.
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