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County gets ready to crank up its mowers

With a new, herbicide-free policy of roadside maintenance to contend with, will Island County road crews now swap their graders 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 manpower will be needed to implement the recently authorized no-spray policy.

According to county engineer Dick Snyder, the road 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 work crews.

However, a question posed by Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell at Monday'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 is possible -- given the county contracted out a greater portion of its road work -- that workers can 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 considerably more labor hours and will double the cost. He predicts Island County's vegetation control program will tack on an additional $100,000 to the total budget, bringing the cost up to about $190,000.

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

He said he would, however, 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 mowing work.

"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."

Recently, Oakes checked in with Jefferson and Snohomish counties -- both are no-spray counties -- to get a ballpark figure on the costs of mowing. "We got a pretty decent consensus that our prices would go up," Oakes said at Monday's meeting.

He said he found the cost of roadside maintenance is higher in those counties because mowers must make three or four passes each season over the same patches 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. He said he wants to maintain in-house expertise, because contractors are not always available. He said that were the county to contract out all of its overlay work, the paving machinery now owned would have to be surplused.

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 in an interview Thursday.

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 -- a sticky layer of oil with gravel on top used to preserve road surfaces. 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 some much-needed business to local contractors and could potentially free up some of the workforce 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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