By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
The Escambia County Commission, at odds over the proposed elimination of a special projects road crew, passed a $26.5 million budget, but barely, last week.
District 5 Commissioner Karean Reynolds and District 1 Commissioner Steven Dickey each voted against the measure, while District 2’s Raymond Wiggins, District 4’s Brandon Smith and District 3’s Scottie Stewart each voted in favor of the funding package for Fiscal Year 2023.
Efforts to reach Reynolds for comments on his opposition to the budget were unsuccessful, but Smith explained that the $149,000 budgeted for the special road crew the past two years was more badly needed to keep the employees who already work for the county’s road department.
“A couple years ago, we had one of our superintendents retire,” Smith said. “A few months later, our county engineer (Bill Bridges) wanted to bring him back and put him over a special projects crew to do dirt road projects, things like that, so we all said we’d try it for a while and see how it goes.”
The commission approved FY 2021 and 2022 budgets that included several spots on the special crew, but only two employees — both of whom already worked for the county — joined the crew.
This year, with the road department down to only “7 or 8” employees, the majority of the five-member commission felt the money could be better used in trying to keep those employees happy.
“The special projects crew was good, when we needed it, but we do a lot more asphalt overlays than we do dirt road projects,” Smith said. “We had $149,000 budgeted in a line item for this crew, with the supervisor and five spots we wanted to fill but never could.
“We (Smith, Wiggins and Stewart) decided we could do away with the special projects crew and give pay raises to the guys out there working every day, doing bush hogging and road grader work, putting in driveway pipes and things like that.”
He said all the county department heads came to the commission several months ago and said they agreed that paying the current employees more was the most prudent idea. Bridges was apparently the only department head to oppose the move.
“That was our main goal for the budget, to give our employee raises so we could keep the ones we had and hopefully attract new ones,” Smith said. “Right now, we have four or five jobs posted for (equipment) operators at the unemployment office in Brewton, but nobody will even inquire about the jobs. They’re not starting out at the highest pay in the world, but they have good benefits and retirement, but nobody wants to work.”
The two fulltime special projects employees were transferred to the regular road department employee roles, so the only job that was lost was that of the supervisor, who had already retired and was drawing a pension.
Smith said he felt — and Wiggins and Stewart agreed — that the $149,000 line-item should be cut from the budget in order to prevent the loss of more employees. That feeling remained, despite complaints from Bridges and others that the move would put a crimp in the effort to get county roads paved and would cost the part-time supervisor his job.
“We had to get money from somewhere, and I don’t know where else we could have cut,” he said. “It’s nothing personal, but one man doesn’t stop a whole operation. The county was paving roads before we started this special projects crew; the county will be paving roads after it’s over with.
“It’s good to have experience on big projects, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. My way of looking at it is, we can’t keep one small crew in place over here and neglect the other guys that are doing projects every day. It was nice to have the special projects crew, but we’ve got to keep up regular maintenance, too.”
The $26,510,000 in projected revenues will be used to cover $25,754,739 leaving about $755,000 for emergencies.