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UNDER THE RADAR: Small township, many miles

Commissioners have ‘absolute authority over roads’

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Harmon Township road commissioner Jim Jackson clears off a section of his township route after the Feb. 19 snowstorm. "I'd rather be grading roads than going on vacation," says the 72-year-old, who's been road commissioner for 8 years and is running unopposed for another term. Jackson says he's also gone to road commissioner association conferences, and is studying a federal manual on road maintenance to learn new techniques.
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HARMON – Some people like to fish during retirement. Not Jim Jackson, road commissioner for Harmon Township.

“I’d rather be grading roads than going on vacation,” said Jackson, 72, a retired truck driver.

He has been road commissioner for 8 years and is running unopposed for a third term April 9. His township has a population of 378 – the eighth smallest of Lee County’s 22 townships.

Harmon Township, in southwestern Lee County, has 46 miles of road to maintain – less than a fourth of which are paved.

Serving as a road commissioner in a rural township is considered a part-time position; Jackson makes $14,000 a year.

He said road commissioners don’t have to personally grade and plow roads, but he does.

“If I didn’t do the work, we wouldn’t have money for rock and fuel,” he said.

As for his salary, he figures he ends up making less than the minimum wage when his hours on the job are factored in.

He is proud of what the township has accomplished since he was elected 8 years ago, saying it has more rock on the roads than when he started. He has also gone to road commissioner association conferences. And he recently got his hands on a federal manual on road maintenance to learn techniques that he doesn’t believe are widely known.

Harmon Township has fewer paved roads than other rural townships, Jackson said. Three times, the township has run unsuccessful referendums to increase taxes to pay for road improvements. Last time, it failed by one vote.

“We always need money. We could probably use $100,000 for road rock today,” he said. “People will send money to Washington or Springfield, but they won’t vote on keeping the dollars within 6 miles.”

He said the township has been cutting costs.

“The smartest thing we did was buy our own truck that hauls rock,” Jackson said. “Five years ago, it cost twice as much to haul rock.”

Road commissioners have a lot of power. Although township trustees hold the purse strings, commissioners choose which roads to improve. But Jackson says most road commissioners use their power wisely.

“My son lives on a gravel road. If I showed favoritism, I would have paved that road,” he said. “I don’t do that.”

Earlier this year, Vern Gottel, supervisor of Lee County’s Palmyra Township, called the road commissioner “the second most powerful person in the state.”

“If you have a good commissioner, it’s fine,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re not getting anywhere.”

Sterling Township Supervisor Matt Howze wouldn’t answer questions about the road commissioner’s salary or the number of full- and part-time employees in the township’s road division.

While acknowledging that the township supervisor and trustees hold the purse strings, Howze said all questions should be referred to the commissioner, Jim Lopez.

Ed Fritts, who is running for Dixon Township supervisor, was South Dixon Township’s supervisor for a decade. But he, too, said he would refer questions about road budgets to the commissioner.

“The road commissioner has absolute authority over roads,” Fritts said.

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