IONIA — The managing director of the Ionia County Road Department has recommended rescinding a policy that requires townships to pay for half of the local costs for primary bridge projects.


But county commissioners are skeptical of that idea, after learning how much more it could cost the county.


The Ionia County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday, April 28, to table the possible policy change. The vote was unanimous and the topic will be discussed at the board’s next meeting on May 12.


Part of the policy states that on primary bridge projects, the township where the bridge is located funds 50 percent of the local costs of the project, said Ionia County Road Department Managing Director Paul Spitzley. Costs include all engineering, surveying, permitting and right-of-way expenses.


Spitzley recommended the board rescind the policy because some townships in Ionia County don’t have the funds for their share of the potential bridge projects, which would lead to eventual closures. He also said not all townships have primary road bridges and some have multiple.


“I’m worried that without rescinding this policy we’re eventually going to have to close bridges because there are bridges in townships that don’t have the money to fund their share of the bridge project, and they’re in rough enough shape where we’re going to have to close the bridge,” Spitzley said.


The local cost currently ranges from $150,000 to $250,000 for the road department to replace a primary bridge, Spitzley said. If the policy is rescinded, Spitzley anticipates the earliest financial impact would be in 2023. If a bridge project is awarded, Spitzley anticipates an increase of $25,000 to $41,700 in costs for the county, as primary bridges are replaced on average every third year. Township funds that would have gone toward the policy would likely still be used on local roads and bridges, Spitzley said.


If the policy is not rescinded, the resolution for support for local bridge program applications would need to changed, Spitzley said. Five county bridges can be applied for in the local bridge program that, if awarded, would pay for 95 percent of the cost of the project. Applications must be submitted by June 1.


Rescinding the policy was recommended by the Ionia County Road Department’s infrastructure committee, Spitzley said. District Five Commissioner Scott Wirtz, who serves on the infrastructure committee, said the discrepancies in fund balances among Ionia County townships was the reasoning for the recommendation.


District Two Commissioner Larry Tiejema asked if it’s possible to revise the policy to request township participation at a certain level, depending on its ability to pay. Spitzley said it’s a difficult task to treat one township differently than another.


“Ultimately, treating two townships differently is going to result in hard feelings and is not a consistent platform,” Spitzley said.


Ionia County Administrator Stephanie Fox said the goal of the road department is to reduce expenditures, adding the townships should “maintain their share.” Spitzley said it has to be balanced with maintaining the roads.


Spitzley said he anticipates a “temporary hit” in revenue from the state due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. District Seven Commissioner Georgia Sharp said she understands Spitzley but would feel “very uncomfortable” voting to rescind the policy. District Four Commissioner Chris Bredice also noted the road department’s $22 million in unfunded pension liability. Spitzley said there are “aggressive plans” for half of that.


“I would like to table this for now,” said District Three Commissioner Karen Banks. “That would put my mind at ease.”


Spitzley told commissioners to talk to their respective township supervisors about what they would do with the extra money if the policy were rescinded. Wirtz said hearing from Spitzley about the plans for the unfunded liability would be “imperative” before making a vote.


The policy also states if any primary gravel road is upgraded to a gravel surface, then the respective township that road is in funds 25 percent of the cost of the upgrade. Spitzley said that’s rare.


“I don’t really think that policy’s necessary,” he said.


— Contact reporter Evan Sasiela at esasiela@sentinel-standard.com. Follow him on Twitter @SalsaEvan.