County Officials in TN Want to Operate Asphalt Plants

Tue December 02, 2003 - National Edition

NASHVILLE, TN (AP) Several county highway superintendents are so determined to save taxpayers money on road construction that they’re trying to get into the asphalt business.

At least 20 counties passed a resolution asking state legislators to repeal a 1976 law that prohibits them from operating asphalt plants.

Washington, Sullivan and Jefferson counties and city of Memphis already had plants when the resolution passed, so their plants were allowed to continue operating.

Some road superintendents say asphalt companies have an unfair advantage over most counties because there is usually only one asphalt provider in town, and that’s usually the sole bid that’s submitted.

County officials say they don’t want to stop the companies from making money, they just don’t want to be held captive by private industry prices.

"I have a $5 million budget and I use around 70,000 to 100,000 tons (of asphalt) a year," said Scotty Parker, Sumner County’s roads superintendent.

"I have one plant in the county and about three in the surrounding areas. Right now, I pay $30 a ton. In the last two years, the cost has gone up by $3 a ton. That’s more than a $200,000 increase.’"

In neighboring Wilson County, Roads Superintendent Steve Armistead pays only $16 a ton. He used to pay $24 a ton until another company relocated to the county nearly four years ago, he said.

"I’m very lucky to have two asphalt plants," Armistead said. "I want to protect those prices.’"

The resolutions are part of a statewide effort by the Tennessee County Highway Officials Association to make road building more affordable for all counties. Several months ago, David Sipes, Hardeman County’s roads superintendent, circulated requests to all 95 counties, with at least 20 of them agreeing to support the resolution.

"We have no alternative," said Rodney Carmical, highway officials association executive director. "Eighty percent of the roads are owned by local interests. This could reduce costs by 25 percent to 30 percent.’

But two members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which deals with county issues, said they don’t support the measure.

Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, said counties should not use taxpayers’ money to compete with private companies.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said he needs proof the savings would outweigh the high operational costs.

Ketron agrees there are incidents of unfair bidding. But that’s part of free enterprise, he said. "That’s the downside of free enterprise," he said. "But free enterprise allows competition from the private sector and not from the taxpayers. If there’s enough demand or complaints, you will find someone who will say ’I can give the same product for a cheaper price.’"

The companies only charge fair market value for the product, so it would be difficult for counties to build the roads cheaper than the private sector, said Kent Starwalt of the Tennessee Road Builders Association.

A similar effort several years ago stalled in the Senate and Carmical acknowledges that only a handful of counties could afford to operate their own plants.

Still, Carmical said he thinks the current political climate will change the outcome this time. "In this day and time, this type of law doesn’t fit because we have open meetings, [The Tennessee Department of Transportation] turning loose the information about bridges and having an open door policy," he said. "It’s also letting local people become involved in road construction."