Thomas Wants Plan for Road Maintenance

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas says he won’t support giving the office of county Engineer Fred Bennett any county funds for road maintenance until Bennett prepares and presents a plan to commissioners on how the money will be spent.

Thomas spoke out on the issue at Wednesday’s commission meeting after a resident asked whether some of the dollars the county has received from oil and gas rights leasing this year could be directed toward paving roads.

Bennett’s office receives its funds for operation from the state’s gas tax and license fees, and not the Belmont County general fund. Commissioners, though, appropriated $1 million to the office last year for paving. This year, they have directed $200,000 to the Engineer’s Office for guardrail replacement and another $300,000 for bridge repairs. The commission also has facilitated another $500,000 in grants for the office, according to Commission President Matt Coffland.

Thomas said he knows of no other county that provides additional funding to its engineer’s department for road maintenance. He added the county could give the office another $1 million from the $3.5 million it is to receive from Rice Energy next month, but it won’t go far.

The spending of $1 million equals the paving of about 12 miles of road, and Belmont County has more than 300 miles of county highway, according to Thomas. He said commissioners have no say in how Bennett – an elected official – spends is budget.

“I refuse as a commissioner to be blamed for the state of the county roads.” Thomas said. “I will not be a part of giving the engineer monies to pave roads unless he presents a plan to us on which roads are going to be done and why, a maintenance plan that goes with it and where his budgetary monies go. Because quite frankly, I don’t know. I don’t understand why the roads aren’t more properly maintained … but again, it’s not in my jurisdiction.”

Bennett said he isn’t certain what Thomas is seeking from him, but he will ask him to learn what it is.

“Does he want a detailed list?” Bennett asked. “I can’t know what roads we will pave until I know how much money we have.”

Bennett said his office typically receives about $4.5 million annually to operate. Out of that money, employees are paid, salt and cinders are purchased and the office must buy gasoline for its vehicles. Matching dollars for federal projects also comes from the office’s budget.

“When that’s all settled, we find out how much we have left for paving,” he said.

Additionally, the price for paving roads has more than tripled during the past year, according to Bennett. The same stretch of highway that cost $30,000 to pave a decade ago now can cost nearly $100,000.

Bennett said of the 308 miles of road in the county, 200 miles are paved. In the last five years, his office has resurfaced just 25 miles of county road.

“If we had the money, the rest would have been paved a long time ago,” he said. “We do the best with what we’ve got.”