Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Dead ends are what some township supervisors in Calhoun County say they’re running into as they try to get roads in their jurisdictions repaired.
“Our residents are suffering because the roads are so bad. If you drove down some of them, it would shake the fillings out of your teeth,” says Steve Schrock, Clarendon Township Supervisor. “We have 28 miles of primary roads, but if residents can’t get out to them without ruining their cars what’s the point?”
In addition to the primary roads, Schrock says the township also has 38 miles of local roads – 31 of which are gravel. The remainder are hard surface.
While the Calhoun County Road Department is responsible for all primary roads in each of the county's 19 townships, each township is responsible for the repair, maintenance, and construction of their local roads, Schrock says. However, the townships are not responsible for the total cost of this work and this has led to conversations focused on potential sources of funding between leaders of some townships and county officials.
Public Act 51,
established in 1951, says that at least 50 percent of the funds used for any local road project need to come from sources other than the road department’s state funding, says John Midgley, Managing Director of the Calhoun County Road Department. He says these funding sources could include a millage or special assessment on residents, in addition to funds from their respective township.
Fred Heaton stands along 24 Mile Road in Clarendon Township and talks about the poor quality of the roads in this part of Calhoun County.
“There’s no law that says a township has to contribute, but if they don’t, we are limited as to what we can do because of Public Act 51,” Midgley says. “The Road Department is responsible for all roads. Primary Roads are 100 percent funded by the road department. If a township wants to prioritize primary roads they can do that.”
That prioritization comes at a cost – one that Clarendon Township's Schrock was presented with in March that he says his township can’t afford to pay. He had put in a request to have 4 inches of gravel put down on 10.5 miles of local roadways to re-gravel the roads and was presented with a bid for this work which would have cost $1.4 million.
“The township would have to fork out $500,000 and we don’t have that kind of money down here,” Schrock says. “Our board is mostly farmers. Just to make sure we were playing in the same ballpark we got a couple more bids from outside of Calhoun County. One was $340,000 and one was $174,000 and that was for 3 inches of gravel instead of 4.”
Schrock says he shared these bids with County Commissioners and says the township could have covered the cost of either of these bids using a combination of ARPA funds
that they received and money in their budget. Clarendon received $121,265 in ARPA funding
And there is not an option that is as simple as the Township paying for the roadwork without involving the County. Under state law, counties throughout Michigan own the roads and bear the liability for them, says Kelli Scott, Calhoun County Administrator/Controller.
This stretch of R Drive South in Calhoun County is riddled with potholes.
“It’s not that we won’t let them use their own money,” she says. “We are required to follow state laws and specifications. We try to do all-inclusive estimates that includes bid for the paving and the additional work that has to happen, including engineering, design and tree trimming for projects to give townships an accurate assessment. Those things go in to managing a successful project. We have heard from time to time ‘Why can’t we choose our own contractor and do it cheaper?’ We’re not allowed to have someone choose their own contractor to do a project on roads we own. We have statutory responsibility for the roads.”
Schrock says he was told that because the County bears the ultimate responsibility for all roads – local and primary – the township could not go out on its own to fix the roads because of potential liability issues that could surface.
“The engineer with the county said that they had to include funds in that quote to cover anything that might happen. He said if there’s something in the quote that we don’t use, we won’t charge you for it,” Schrock says.
Calhoun County Road Department's Midgley says he agrees that the initial quote the county received from the Road Engineering department was “extremely high. There was some additional work in there that they had. It was a whole gamut of things versus just laying down gravel on the road.”
Randy Butler talks about the needs of the roads in Clarendon Township.
He says he shared this with Schrock and “I told him that we’re working on a proposal that will greatly reduce the cost.”
Schrock says he’s waiting to see that new proposal and is frustrated that the road repairs will most likely be put off until next year.
Midgley says his department is also frustrated because of funding cutbacks that have impacted their ability to finance more road improvement projects. Over the past three years, the county road department has faced a significant loss of revenue and the state has not reimbursed the department for these lost revenues, Scott says.
“Our road department estimated that more than $2 million was lost over 2020 and 2021 because people weren’t driving as much due to COVID,” she says.
“Most of our funds come from the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees,” Midgley says. “We get about $15 million annually from that. But we have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of needs. We’re all frustrated with the lack of funding and not being able to maintain these roads. We are paid by the state to maintain certain state highways in the county.”
Steve Schrock, Clarendon Township supervisor, left, talks about his concern with the township’s roads. Randy Butler is seen to the right.
Calhoun County ranks in the top four of counties with the most paved roads in Michigan, he says.
“In this county, 13 percent of the roads are not paved. The average for all 83 counties is 42.7 percent,” Midgley says.
A bumpy drive to road repairs
On Feb. 1 Midgley met with township officials who were asked to submit local road projects that they wanted to start working on with the understanding that signed agreements would need to be in by April 1. On May 1 the county let those municipalities know if these projects would be funded. This process is governed by Policy 509
for local road funding.
Out of the county’s 19 townships, 12 participated. Clarendon was among seven that did not. Athens, Burlington, Homer, Lee, Newton, and Tekonsha also chose not to participate, Midgley says.
“Everything that came in was approved,” Midgley says. “The road department put in $2.4 million and the townships put in $1.8 million. With some of the projects, 70 percent of the cost was on the road department and 30 percent was on the townships depending on the project.”
If the project involves asphalt paving, it’s a 50/50 split. If it involves something less costly, the split is 70/30 with the county paying the larger share, Midgley says.
Fred Heaton displays the size of potholes in a stretch of 24 Mile Road in Clarendon Township.
The majority of the county’s road projects that fall within the 70/30 split involve chip seal or seal coat, which involves treating the pavement surface with liquid asphalt material covered by crushed stone to provide a new roadway surface and prevent future deterioration
However, if a township wants to return its roads to gravel, the county pays 100 percent of the cost.
“I actually had three projects a few years ago in Burlington where we took old gravel-sealed roads that were in such bad shape and returned them to gravel. We had originally put down double chip seal about 20 years ago to maintain the roads. We required the townships to do chip seal every three to five years and that was not done and those roads now are the ones in such horrible shape,” Midgley says. “We’re trying to convince townships that if they’ve got some of those roads and don’t have the money for repairs, let us return it to gravel.”
If a township never has money to put in for their road repairs or maintenance, Midgley says, “It’s 100 percent on the road department to maintain them. In Homer, we’ve patched and repatched and repatched again. That’s all we can do under the law without it being a major project that requires that 50/50 split.”
But the patching work is not addressing the problem, says Fred Heaton, a Homer resident, and owner of Heaton Excavating. He has offered up his own money to fix roads surrounding his land. He has marked areas with orange paint and says R Drive is the worst area with holes that surface in the springtime that are between four and six inches deep.
Fred Heaton talks about his offer to help pay to repair some of the roads in Calhoun County.
“I have marked out in orange the minimum amount. The minimum amount is 470 feet that needs addressing,” Heaton says. “The first area is 100 feet north of here on M-24. The worst of it is about 350 feet east of this road on R Drive.”
He says he has not come up with an estimate for the cost of the repair work, which would involve putting down a layer of asphalt.
“I’ve got liability insurance through my business. I’m hoping to get cooperation from the county so that they would bring the materials out and lay it out to the best of their ability,” Heaton says.
However, he says, “Nothing’s been resolved. I would love to see the County Road Department come out with a progressive plan and at least identify the worst areas and work from there. All they’re doing is filling in holes. I’m good with putting some money out but I want to put it into the roads and not in the pockets of the road department. Let’s fix the worst so they don’t abandon the roads and turn them back to gravel.”
A lack of funds to maintain local roads is a major issue for rural townships in the county, including Burlington, Clarendon, and Homer, which are each populated with less than 2,000 residents. For these townships, millages and special assessments are not a viable option.
“We’d be dipping into our savings and making cuts to other areas. The mostly rural townships like Burlington and Tekonsha are mostly agricultural areas where we don’t have the tax base to support a millage or special assessment,” Schrock says. “Townships like Bedford, Emmett, and Pennfield can raise the money this way.”
Scott says because Bedford, Emmett, and Pennfield are more urban areas with industrial tax bases it is much easier for them to get residents to support millages or special assessments to do comprehensive roadwork or road resurfacing. She says the county also has the ability to issue bonds which enables them to do larger improvement projects such as one in Emmett that cost $25 million.
“This is financing long-term assets like roads and bridges,” Scott says.
She says county officials have been very aggressive and proactive in their efforts to work with any township that wanted to figure out a way to come up with their 50 percent to fix local roads.
“We have worked with those that have been able to come up with the matching funds,” Scott says. “There aren’t many creative ways townships have. They can ask residents to approve a millage. But, the level of millages that these smaller, rural townships would have to ask for may not be palatable for their residents. I don’t think too many of them can carve out too much from their general funds to fix the roads.”
The fallout, she says, has been the accusation that “smaller townships on the east side of the county have been neglected. We have put in just as much effort as we can with all of the townships. Those that have millages have the capacity to fix their roads.”
Heaton says, “We cannot do a millage because it’s farmers who will pay for the roads. We don’t have that kind of money to spend.”
Given these funding constraints, Scott says there needs to be more funding options.
“The solution has to be finding funding for every single project and road,” Scott says. “In most counties, most of the townships have special dedicated millages because that’s the only way to make a dent in roads that need to be resurfaced. We have resurfaced more than half of all county road systems by doing large-scale projects with the townships.”
A countywide road millage is an option and one that most other counties in Michigan have, she says.
“We could have a road millage. We have talked about this with our County Commissioners. One thought was that if the majority of townships could get voter-approved millages potentially that would be the time to ask for a countywide road millage. But, it’s hard to ask for millages. It would be a lot easier for townships to ask voters to raise money to fix only their own roads and maybe layer that on top of a small countywide millage. That’s a difficult concept for people to accept.”