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How can county pay for no-spray?

With a new, herbicide-free policy of roadside maintenance to contend with, will Island County road crews now swap their sprayers for mowers?

An ongoing debate about the amount of contracted labor currently used by Island County’s road department has led, if only indirectly, to the question of how much man-power will be needed to implement the recently authorized no-spray policy.

According to county engineer Dick Snyder, the roads department currently farms out the majority of its overlay work to private contractors, leaving about 30 percent of the annual asphalt-laying job for county workers. However, a question posed by Commissioner Mac McDowell at last week’s board meeting may have opened the door for a re-evaluation of the contracted-to-county labor ratio. Specifically, McDowell asked Snyder and Public Works Director Bill Oakes if it was possible, given the county contracted out a greater portion of its road work, that workers then would be freed up to focus on roadside maintenance.

Such a question touches upon the issue of exactly how much money and manpower will be needed to implement Island County’s herbicide-free policy of roadside vegetation control, which was adopted April 1. According to Oakes, enacting the no-spray ordinance will require considerable more labor hours and will double the cost. He predicts Island County’s veggie control program will tack on an additional $100,000 to the total budget, bringing the cost up to about $190,000.

New tractor mowers needed

Part of that increase, Oakes added, is due to the purchase of 4 new tractor-mowers — one for each of the county’s road shops — at a cost-per-unit of about $40,000.

According to Maintenance Supervisor Jack Taylor, the county’s mowers, new or otherwise, probably won’t be revving up until the beginning of May. Taylor pointed out that due to past herbicide use, it could take some roadside vegetation quite a while to grow back to the point where it’s of concern to the county.

Of course, road maintenance is a year around job of which mowing is only a part. There is also direct work on the roads, and Oakes said he would prefer the county stay in the overlay business, at least to some extent. First, he said only “serendipity” would bring about a perfect inverse relation of contracted labor to labor hours that are liberated for the hard work of mowing.

“It would help in managing the mowing demands that we have,” Oakes said about the idea of contracting more overlay jobs. “I don’t think it’s the answer for the mowing demands though.”

Additional hours increase costs

Recently, Oakes checked in with the no-spray Jefferson and Snohomish counties to get a ballpark figure on the costs of mowing. “We got a pretty decent consensus that our prices would go up,” he said.

Oakes found that what raises expenses is not in the numbers of people needed for mowing; as with spray trucks, only one worker operates a mower. The big cost comes from the fact that three or four passes with the mower must be made to each patch of ground.

“The spray truck and the mowers move at similar speeds,” Oakes said. “It’s just a matter of revisiting the roads. We hope in time we’ll identify when we can reseed with lower growing plants and sort of integrate our vegetation control. We may be able to lower the number of passes we can make.”

The primary reason Oakes wants his department to hold onto some share of overlay work is practical. “I would like to maintain the expertise in-house to go out and overlay roads,” he said. “Contractors aren’t always available. They get bigger jobs with other clients and you kind of get on the waiting list.” He added that were the county to contract out all of its overlay work, the paving machinery now owned would have to be surplused.

Shelton favors more contracting

Commissioner Mike Shelton said he believes the county would be better off contracting out all of its road work, though he admitted to being in the minority on this issue.

“I probably am one of those few that believe we’re better off to contract it out,” Shelton said. The reason he gave for this boils down to time and availability. The county is already responsible for doing prelevel work on roads as well as laying seal coat. Add to this the brand-new expense of mowing and, Shelton said, “we already have a pretty full plate.”

Snyder said contracting out 100 percent of the county’s overlay work (Camano Island already does this) would give business to local contractors as well as potentially freeing up some of the county work force for roadside maintenance.

“It’s kind of a workforce issue,” Snyder said. “There’s no decision on it yet. We’re talking a long-range program. We’ll be deciding next week.”

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