Editor’s note: On Saturday before Byron Hamilton left office after eight years as the Cedar County Northern Associate Commissioner, the Sun sat down with him to get his thoughts on the experience and the future of Cedar County.
I’m finishing up my second term. It doesn’t seem like it’s been eight years.
Q. How has it been?
I’ve really enjoyed it.
Q. Was it what you thought it would be?
Yeah, kinda. Everybody is going to have a learning curve.
Q. What surprised you?
The biggest surprise I got was the budget. I’ll put it this way. What ever budget the commission allows an office holder to have, they can spend it any way they want. And that was a shock.
So we started drawing the lines back in 2005.
Q. What do you mean by drawing the lines?
You have to have oversight. If an office holder gets just so much money allowed to them in their budget, they can spend it any way they want. Well, that is not serving the taxpayer well. So we started saying, “Well, you give us a line item for each budget you want money for in January of each year. Tell us what you want that money for, then we will approve or disapprove.” But just to put a lump sum of money in their budget is not the way to do it.
Q. Could the office holders change it?
Once you put it in their budget, the county commissioners don’t have control over it.
Q. There are repercussions for next year, that’s the only control you have over it?
That was really a surprise. We got a handle on that pretty quick.
Fortunately, the office holders were a big help.
In 2006, John and I really started putting some controls on budget items.
Q. You told me something else that surprised me. You said that the northern commissioner is in charge of what goes on in the northern part of the county and the southern commissioner is in charge of what goes on in the southern part.
Q. What does the presiding commissioner do, sort of sit as a referee?
The presiding commissioner breaks a tie on a vote.
He presides over the meetings, signs payroll and contract documents, and serves on various state local committees. The northern and southern commissioners have sole authority on roads and bridges in their area. The presiding commissioner does not overrule them.
Q. What has the county accomplished in the past eight years?
The first thing I saw when I first ran for office the first time in 2002 was how long it had been since some of these roads and bridges had been without care or attention. I ran for presiding commissioner in 2002. That’s when I started taking a good hard look at things. In 2005, in my first year as northern commissioner, I started concentrating on those areas that had not had attention.
I go back over 50 years when I rode these roads on a school bus. When you’ve got trees 12 and 15 inches in diameter sitting on the in-slope of the roads, those ditches have not had attention for a lot of years. So, I made it my goal to start pulling ditches and rebuilding roads.
In the eight years, we have rebuilt something like 40 miles of roads in both districts.
Q. Do you have any idea how many miles of roads there are?
County-wide the commissioners have 380 plus or minus miles of country roads to deal with. The county doesn’t have any paved roads. Those are either state or special road district. We just don’t have the money.
El Dorado Springs Special Road District is under good management. They have done really well.
Q. What other big projects?
We’ve built and rebuilt around 20 bridges in the last eight years. A lot of that has been done through county funding and utilization of the road and bridge crew. The road and bridge crew built a 60 ft. bridge over Hunter Branch, on 1800 Road south of Stockton and saved the county a lot of money.
Q. What did a 60 ft. bridge cost?
We figured we had a little over $50,000 in that.
Q. Isn’t that cheap?
That’s dirt cheap.
Q. What did the 40 ft. bridge cost over Little Clear Creek on the Cedar/St. Clair County line that Boone Construction is about to finish?
That was around $200,000.
They are a good company. They did a beautiful job.
Q. What other big projects have you had?
Back in 2005, we had a situation on Cedar Creek at Stump Ford Bridge on 1201 Road that had been ignored. We were about to lose the road. We went in and rip-rapped about 400 feet of bank from the water line. We remedied that problem. We spent about $16,000.
Then it started washing downstream and undercutting the bridge. We didn’t have the money. USDA helped us with about $200,000 but it didn’t correct the problem. They didn’t let us go to the freeze line where it backs up when the dam is open at Stockton. The bank was sloughing off below the freeze line.
They are still working on it. USDA may give the county some more money.
Q. Is the county eligible for MoDOT money?
We do get MoDOT money. It’s called BRO money for bridges. We have to match 20% of it in money or labor and equipment. The BRO fund is our taxes coming back from Washington from federal hiway funds and a certain percent is earmarked for county bridge projects. The county commission prioritizes which bridges to build.
Q. The bridge over Wilkey Creek south of Glade Springs Church on the Vernon/Cedar County line – Neal Gerster, northern Vernon County commissioner, told me they are going to replace it using BRO money. How long will that take?
We were almost two years getting funding through on these two, so I don’t know.
At the county commissioners association meeting every year in Jeff City, I hammered MoDOT about improving the Hwy. 32 corridor. Shoulders were a big issue. Of course, you only have so much right-of-way to work with. We know we don’t have the money to acquire additional right-of-way and people aren’t going to donate the land.
So this year, I raised enough stink that they widened it 16 inches on each side and put the rumble strip all the way through to the county line, which is an improvement, but it is not what I was after.
It’s kind of like the Bear Creek corner. They have surveyed it for 40 or 50 years. When Mike Parson got in office, he and I hammered MoDOT commissioners. So we got the road straightened out but we got a lot less road improvements than what we thought we were going to get. So you have to compromise.
The rumble strip gives a little bit of warning.
The Hwy. 32 corridor is critical to Stockton with the county seat and the lake there. If we ever want to get any economic development in Stockton, we are going to have to improve the Hwy. 32 corridor. That’s the supply route.
Q. You mentioned economic development. Where does the county stand on economic development? What has been done? What do we need to do?
If you try to contact anybody, the first thing they look at is access, roads in and out. Then they are going to look at the labor force – what kind of– manpower is available.
Kimball Long, Sun publisher who sits on the Ecnomic Development committee for Cedar County, said, “But you’ve got to have some economic development to have a workforce. You’re not going to have a willing workforce sit around for years waiting on a factory or whatever.”
I was at Ash Grove to a football game and there are people from there who drive to Nevada to work for 3M. So we could attract from area towns.
So we sjust have to get somebody in here to develop something. You see, government doesn’t produce anything.
Kimball Long said, “In the economic development meeting, Emily Wilson, of the Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission, told me that there are companies in Kansas City coming down to Adrian because it is so much cheaper.”
“Keep them coming down Hwy. 71 (I – 49). I think if the county is open to that type of thing, that’s where our future is.”
Hamilton – Like that Hagael building over at Stockton, the city bought that. Why would the city buy that instead of trying to get somebody in there? That would be a good place to rebuild transmissions or a diesel engine rebuild shop. So what if they hired only 8 or 10 people? That’s a good payroll increase for Cedar County.
That furniture store (Rabe building), it was a car dealership at one time. It would house an engine rebuilding facility or a filter cleaning business.
Q. What about zoning? Has that been a hot topic?
The past commission (Kenny Whitesell, Richard Wood and Marvin Yarnell) passed a nuisance ordinance. They can’t interfere with agricultural production, but they can limit something like a confinement animal feeding operation.
Then there’s planning and zoning. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, but so many people don’t understand it because they’ve never had to deal with it. It protects the neighbors. People have forgotten what common sense and common courtesy is about. I wouldn’t want somebody to open up a feedlot next to me.
Q. What about the jail?
We started talking about this pretty seriously in 2006.
Q. Were we about to get sued?
We were about to lose our insurance. It’s a wonder we haven’t been sued.
There has been a lot of bad press from letters to the editor from people who have no clue about what they are talking about.
Q. What have been their objections?
They say the county can’t afford it. Well, we can’t afford to keep paying $100,000 to house prisoners outside the county.
Q. So it will save the county $100,000 per year?
Yes, and that is just for housing, food and medical. It doesn’t count the transportation. There have been weeks when the sheriff’s department would make two or three trips to Fulton and back or to Lebanon and back. Maybe a half dozen trips on court day. The deputies are out of service to taxpayers and they are running up a bill.
Q. How is it going to make us money?
We are going to be able to house prisoners from outside Cedar County.
Q. Any estimate of how much money you will get?
Right at this minute we don’t. But we have had talks with Dade County which has asked us to reserve so many cells.
Q. How many cells will the jail have?
Fifty-six cells. Twelve female and 44 male. I tell you what, female prisoners are an astronomical expense.
Q. Any estimate of how much revenue you will get off of housing other counties’ prisoners?
If we have a jail full, we will bring in over $200,000 a year.
Q. What is the jail going to cost us and what will the payments be?
The revenue will make the payments. We are projecting that revenue will more than pay for the bonds. They are revenue bonds.
Q. What was the amount of the bonds?
About 4.7 or $4.8 million.
Q. What is the completion date on the jail?
July 1, 2013.
Q. Is the construction on schedule?
I spent all my life in construction. If I was running the project, we’d be ahead of where we are. They got started off bad. They replaced the superintendent and the new one has been playing catch up. They were three or four weeks behind where they should have been when he took over. They are catching up. He’s a good superintendent. He makes a three-week schedule and updates it every week.
Q. What stage are they in on the jail?
They are hanging the iron now.
They’ve got the foundation and walls poured and got it back filled. They are hanging the structural iron that will hold the first level slab.
Q. How many stories will it be?
It will be one level with a parking garage in the basement. The jail area itself will have two layers of cells. The cells are steel cubes.
It is being built so you can add onto it.
Q. What about the dispatch service?
The control room will be in the center. One person can monitor the whole jail.
Q. What does Cedar County need to do to improve ourselves? Have better jobs, better economic situation? Better roads, better schools?
You need people going to the county commission meetings and getting involved there instead of writing letters to the editor. Letters to the editor are fine if you want somebody to see your name in the paper, but it doesn’t accomplish anything.
Q. You’re not going to be a commissioner any longer. If it was just up to you, what would you do?
You’ve got to increase revenues to provide more services. That’s what people want, but you can’t cure everything with more services. You’ve got to get people involved.
On economic development, you’ve got to stop the squabbling between El Dorado and Stockton. That’s fine for high school sports to have this rivalry. But it’s not good for the communities to have that same rivalry.
Q. What do you think about the ambulance service?
Things seem to be settled down considerably. I think the ambulance service seems to be working smoother than it was. I don’t want to lose control of it like we did before, when you get too many people who are not looking out for the interests of the taxpayers. I want to get people involved. That’s what it takes.
Q. I’ve heard the possibility of disbanding the ambulance board and putting it under the county commission. Would that work?
Absolutely it would work.
Q. Would it be a good idea?
I think so. It would do away with the 3-3 tie and it would do away with the disruption of the meetings. They wouldn’t get by with that behavior in commission meetings.
Q. Your advice for the next commission?
The decisions they make today will affect this county for the next 50 to 100 years. They have to look that far ahead.
We don’t make a decision based on our own personal opinion. You make it for the benefit of the people 50 years from now.
We’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve done a lot of good. We’ve got a good staff in the courthouse. We’ve got a good group of elected officials. For the most part most of them are very cost conscious.
We got an opportunity through change of personnel two years ago to change leadership in the road and bridge department. And our road and bridge department is doing an outstanding job now. I can’t praise them enough.
We’ve really upgraded the equipment for our road and bridge department.
I want to thank everyone for the opportunity to serve Cedar County these past eight years. I have truly enjoyed the ride. John (Fox), Jesse (Watts) and Don (Boultinghouse), I wish you the very best at your task. Peggy (Kenney, county clerk), thank you and your staff for all that you do.