By Robert Tomlinson
CENTREVILLE — With new bids recently coming in that exceeded prior estimates, members of the board of the St. Joseph County Road Commission made a plea to county commissioners Tuesday for more assistance in covering the costs of its upcoming Covered Bridge project.
While no action was taken during the commissioners’ Executive Committee session, commissioners said they were amenable to covering some, but not all, of the approximately $355,637 that the road commission is short in costs on the project, based on a recently-proposed bid of $3.27 million to reconstruct the superstructure of the bridge. The measure will be discussed further at the county’s Executive Committee meeting in April.
The project, scheduled to commence this summer, will reconstruct the superstructure of the bridge with the preservation of its historical members. It will replace all the steel that is not visible under the bridge, and will include some timber repairs, a new wooden deck, new abutments, and a paintjob.
The state of the superstructure has been a concern since work was done on the bridge in 2008, and due in part to a resolution made by the county commission in 2019 encouraging the road commission to keep the Covered Bridge open to traffic, the agency has sought funding for the multi-million-dollar project over the last few years.
Initial estimates for the bridge project in 2021 pinned the cost at $2 million, however, due to inflation in material costs, in 2022 that estimate was revised to $2.7 million. On March 10, Road Commission Board Chair Eric Shafer told commissioners Tuesday, the initial bids were opened for the project, with the lowest of three bids being a $3.27 million one from Anlaan Corporation. Because of how close the bids were – the other two bids were within $150,000 of the low bid – the agency will not be re-bidding the project.
Funding-wise, the road commission will have 38 percent of the cost – $1,244,413 – covered by the state’s Local Bridge Program, thanks to a grant received by the agency in October 2020. An additional $750,000 in funding will come from a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation received by the agency in September 2020 thanks to the efforts of former State Sen. Kim LaSata, while the county commission and road commission pitched in $250,000 each a couple of years ago. Because of the revised estimate in 2022, the road commission’s share of the cost increased to $674,000 to meet the $2.7 million estimate at the time.
With the new bid coming in, Shafer said it left a $355,637 funding hole for the project they are looking to fill. He said the road commission could fill that gap themselves, but it would be at the expense of paving primary roads this summer.
“The help primarily is to save money from primary roads so we can keep on putting the money back into primary roads,” Shafer said. “I’m not going to tell you that if you don’t give us the help, we’re not going to do it, since we’re committed to this project. But it is going to take money away from primary road construction.”
Shafer said the county is preparing to pave/reconstruct just 9.3 miles of primary roads in 2023, down from 18.27 miles in 2022, due in part to the Covered Bridge project.
Commission Chair Ken Malone said the county has major projects of its own they have coming up that require funding, but said an option could be taking American Rescue Plan funds the county is expected to receive in 2025 or 2026 and allocating them now to help the road commission with the Covered Bridge. He added the main problem the road commission has with funding, in his view, was Act 51, how the agency gets the majority of its funding.
“We’re not supposed to be your funding mechanism. You’ve been fortunate that there’s been a lot of generosity by the county, but I’m still of the position that you’re in a better financial situation than we are,” Malone said, then referenced the $200,000 the county has given the road commission the last few years as part of the Failed Road/Bridge fund. “The fact we still gave you those funds when we could’ve used them somewhere else was a good thing for you moreso than for us, as far as them being able to stay whole and not in debt.”
Another possible option for funding discussed was using some of the $881,300 the county has received from the Marihuana Regulation Fund, thanks to the 17 licensed recreational marijuana dispensaries operating in the county. Malone said it is still an “item to discuss,” but some of the money – approximately $155,000 of it, according to Fifth District Commissioner Dennis Allen – has already been budgeted for other items, such as new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department.
“That’s the only thing we’ve at this point dedicated any of [the marijuana] money toward,” Malone said. “Honestly, first we didn’t know what we were going to get this year versus last year. Obviously, it’s greater, but then we don’t know where it’s going to be sustained at, but that’s also money we could consider paying back on renovation work.”
First District Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster said the ultimate thing commissioners had to ask is if they wanted to make the sacrifice to primary roads by not helping to fund the project. County Administrator Teresa Doehring said even if the county helps fund it, it will still impact primary roads, and that either way, the money would ultimately be coming out of the county’s fund balance.
Allen said the county needs to move forward with helping the road commission either way with their funding request.
“I don’t want to sit here and argue and argue and debate and debate on whether we cover the cost or make up the money for the $355,000 you need to do the bridge when you’re worried about whether or not next year brings the $200,000 or $100,000, whatever it may be [for the Failed Road/Bridge Fund]. I think we need to move forward,” Allen said.
Shafer mentioned the road commission has already budgeted one major capital projects for the year, a new equipment storage shed to replace the old one they currently have that has wooden posts rotting out. To make up for the cost of that, Shafer said the commission put off buying new trucks this year – this year would’ve been a “truck year” in their rotation of capital purchases.
“If you hear from the community that, ‘oh, the funding for the Covered Bridge is messed up, and the built a new building,’ that’s why we made the decision to not invest in trucks this year and do the building,” Shafer said.
Later in discussion, Hoffmaster suggested offering an additional $250,000 from the county to help offset some of the costs, bringing the county’s total contribution to $500,000. Shafer said he would be amenable to that, with Fourth District Commissioner Luis Rosado and Second District Commissioner Rick Shaffer agreeable to it as well.
However, more discussion will be taking place prior to a decision being made, as Finance Director Angie Steinman said she had not had a chance to look at the budget prior to the discussion, and would need some time to look at how much the county could contribute. That led commissioners to agree to bring it back at the next Executive Committee meeting in April.
Shafer said he didn’t expect a commitment during the meeting, but said he appreciated the discussion with the county about the issue at hand.
“I wanted to put this in front of you, otherwise it would’ve been waiting a month, and we didn’t want to do that,” Shafer said.
Malone said he appreciated Shafer coming to the commissioners “the right way” so they could discuss it with him “in the most cordial way possible.”
“We want to be able to come up with something, but I want to make sure we’re doing it right,” Malone said.
In other business…
Commissioners discussed an update on the county’s building projects at the both the courthouse and the old Three Rivers Public Library building.
Commissioners gave direction to county staff to look into possible improvements to the commission room’s acoustics to make it easier for meeting attendees to hear discussions taking place.
Commissioners added to the agenda adding a new rule for the county commission regarding commissioners calling in to participate in Executive Committee meetings.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or email@example.com.