(This is Part 1 of a four-part series on the county's road paving problems, through the eyes of the county's engineer.)
County Engineer Mike Short estimates probably 300 to 360 miles of Walker County's roads - about 25 to 30 percent of them - are in desperate need of repair.
How you get them repaired is not the $64 question. The cost could be as high as $36 million to $43 million, based on $120,000 a mile to pave - although help is coming in the form of the state gas tax increase, which may have to do as major help until the 2013 bond issue is paid off in a dozen years.
"It is a somewhat daunting task," Short said.
Short recently gave a nearly hour-long interview - in what may be his most extensive comments on the road problem - to the Daily Mountain Eagle to review the problem, although some details have also been published in the Eagle over the years.
If there was an issue that seems to be on the mind of voters in the Walker County Commission races, is would be the roads, which have been decried about at length in commission meetings and social media posts alike.
The commission has constantly said its hands have been tied. Even during the 2 failed 1-cent sales tax referendum in 2017, which was attempted when the commission was considered close to bankruptcy, it was estimated $4.23 million would go to road needs each year. However, when that failed, the commission turned to other methods, which, combined with a good economy, saw the budgets improve.
But the roads have received few local solutions, to the point Cordova City Councilman Larry Sides on Feb. 11 staged a photo of fishing in a pothole on Gardner's Gin Road, which connects Old Birmingham Highway to the city of Cordova. The phone ran online in the Daily Mountain Eagle's Facebook page. Sides is concerned about the condition of the road, especially because it is so heavily used by school traffic.
The potholes in that area were repaired later in the week. District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams, who said he has not been online for four months and indicated the repair involved the normal routine of someone calling in about potholes and, once looked at, the district crew repairs it.
At the same time, officials point to the state's new road program, Rebuild Alabama, using funds from the increased sales tax revenue approved last year. Walker County has $3 million in roadwork scheduled for this year, covering nearly 17 miles of roads reaching all four districts.
Ironically, Gardner's Gin Road was also scheduled in that group until it was realized no road was provided for in District 4. The county decided to make up for that by using other saved federal funds to continue that 3.8 mile project, still costing nearly $387,000.
District 4 officials have also been working on paving for Empire Road, using federal and local funds, as it is a major collector.
Also, District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams said
It is not hard to see where some of Walker County's problems have resulted, as the coal industry's decline over the years has hurt the industry and the middle and upper class tax base. Short noted, "When coal tax was really propelling the county, they were able to also get help from the actual mining operators themselves on some items, from industry. Industry was able to help out some."
Officials have talked for years about how improved fuel efficiency of newer vehicles has meant less gasoline purchases, reducing gas tax revenue for local, state and federal governments. "Even though we probably have more traffic and more gallons of gas burned, people are not buying as much gas as an individual," he said.
In addition, Short noted a Retirement Systems of Alabama reprint this month of an Alabama Political Reporter story noting that Alabama state and local governments collect less in taxes per resident than any state in the U.S., based on a 2019 study of U.S. Census Bureau data by the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Alabama state and local governments collects $3,370 per resident through various taxes, versus $3,755 in the Southeast and $4,682 in the nation.
PARA reported if the state was brought to the Southeastern average, state and local governments in Alabama would have an additional $2 billion for services, the story said. The state has among the highest sales tax rates in the U.S. and some of the highest taxes per capita on alcohol and public utilities, while it still prefers low property tax.
In addition, unlike Jasper and other municipalities benefiting from the improving economy, all the sales tax that Walker County collects is for education. Funds it does receive have not kept up with the demands, and the county had cutbacks to stabilize its own financial problems.
"We're reduced the number of employees in each district to a point to where we are functional at best," Short said. "We don't have people sitting around doing nothing. We don't have extra truck drivers we can plug in if someone is out. It used to be years ago, we would do a lot of county paving. It takes a lot of people in single-axle dump trucks, asphalt distributors, chip spreaders, flag men - it probably takes double-digit people to perform that operation, and we don't have a district that has 10 full-time employees.
"When we do some paving in a district with county forces, normally we have to borrow some personnel from other departments, either road or bridge or engineering or maybe even another district, where one district would have to help out another."
All of that has led to road conditions that people now regularly complain about on Facebook and sometimes in meetings - especially concerning District 3, where some some complaints have also been made they could not reach Williams, who is not running for re-election.
Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop noted one of the District 3 candidates said work in that district was 20 years behind. "It was 20 years behind 20 years ago," he said, adding it is "not an overnight project."
That may not be an overstatement, as part of the controversial bond issue that started in 2002 with $9.5 million involved doing road work - something that unaware auditors would later complain about, as the work would probably not outlive its retirement date, and the county would have to actually repay $27 million.
Commissions since then - the earliest the current commissioners have been elected is 2012, with most coming in 2016 - refinanced the bond issue in 2013 for $15.5 million and have made cuts to save money, but the irony is that financing efforts to pave roads two decades ago are tying up money now to pave roads now. Approximately $1 million a year goes now to the debt's principal, which will be paid off in February 2032 - happy news for the commission to be elected in 2032, but tough for paving roads now.
Short said people should also consider the per-person cost for roads. "That is our largest and most difficult handcuffing item," Short said. "That is how much per capita we get."
He said no sales tax revenue is coming in for roadwork, and the lowest property tax in the nation coming to Alabama - and with Walker County maybe lower than the state average.
"We are only an extension of our state Legislature - every county is," he said. "We can only make do with what they allow to be laid on the table. We don't have a lot of ability to generate or change that," he said.
Asked how he and county employees react to hearing all the anger concerning county roads on social media posts and in coffee shops, he said, "I feel certain that the people who are out there on the roads every day, trying to do the best they can, certainly get discouraged. I just want to do the best I can. I don't really get discouraged because I'm trying to help the community I grew up in, trying to invent ways or think of ways to do an even better job."
He said one has to feel for the county district workers, as they have families to feed.
"They county workers, they are not paid some exorbitant amount," Short said. "They are doing it because they enjoy it. Most of them are heavily embedded in their local community. I know two of more direct employees are both pastors, who pastor churches on Wednesday nights and on the weekends. A lot of county employees have a lot of things that they are able to do to supplement their income. It is kind of rare for someone to do their county job and go home and do nothing other than deal with their family life. They usually do something else for other income."