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Plan frees up money for road repairs

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GREENFIELD — Now that the purchase of new trucks for the Hancock County Highway Department is off the table, county officials are eyeing a new plan that will put more money into road repairs while maintaining the department’s current fleet.

Hancock County Commissioners have agreed to a plan that would put more money into maintenance personnel and equipment for the county’s dump trucks. The revised strategy ultimately would put $185,000 more toward material such as asphalt so the department can keep up with repairs.

The plan, which must next be approved by the Hancock County Council, has been a long time coming. Multiple heated meetings were held last fall on a proposed $2 million bond issue, most of which would have been used to purchase 12 new trucks for the highway department.

Ultimately, the bond issue was turned down, and a new committee was formed to dig deep into the highway department’s equipment management.

The committee is made up of Marc Huber, Armin Apple, Jerry Leonard, Jeary Smith and Bill Ettinger.

“Hopefully we can extend the life of those (trucks) a little bit and hopefully we can get into a cycle where we can only buy two or three trucks at a time instead of buying all 12,” said Huber, who is a county councilman.

The county highway department had budgeted $260,000 to lease 12 new trucks this year. Proponents of the bond issue last year said buying new trucks outright would have freed up money annually for road maintenance. But opponents balked at the thought of purchasing new vehicles when the current fleet was in fairly good shape.

Because the bond was ultimately turned down, the equipment advisory committee was tapped to come up with a Plan B for the highway department.

The committee met last Friday for the second time. Tuesday, Joe Copeland, engineer for the highway department, presented the committee’s recommendations to the county’s executive branch.

The plan is to use the $260,000 that had been earmarked for new trucks. A total of $15,000 would go into increased hourly wages for mechanics. Another $60,000 would go toward equipment to maintain the trucks, leaving the rest – $185,000 – for road improvements.

“That’s exciting,” Commissioner Tom Stevens said of the additional money for road work.

All three commissioners approved of the idea, saying they were glad the committee was able to come up with a plan to both maintain the trucks and also improve roads.

Huber said the trucks, mostly 2006 models, are in fairly good shape and most are still under warranty. But Apple pointed out that there should be a backup plan for snow removal.

Apple, a former county commissioner and council member, suggested the county hire a snow removal contractor on stand-by in case one of the trucks breaks down.

“As they get older, the dependability may decrease,” he said.

The plan calls for three new trucks to be purchased in 2015, and another three to four new trucks in 2017.

The highway department had a maintenance employee in its budget, but it currently does not have one. Copeland said the plan would boost the salary of a new maintenance person, which could attract someone with greater skills. The plan also envisions hiring an assistant maintenance employee, but Copeland said there will not be a net increase to the department’s 25 employees; rather, job duties will change.

Huber said that’s to make sure the department keeps an eye on maintaining its fleet.

“We’re trying to extend their life a little bit, and we’ve been working with Mr. Copeland at the highway department to get more aggressive with it and be more proactive on that end to extend the life (of the trucks),” Huber said.

The issue of finding money for road repairs is critical because increased costs and lower revenue have cut into the amount of money that can be spent on road repairs. Unless more revenue was found, it would be difficult to maintain a schedule of patching and paving, officials have said.

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