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More paving, fewer workers
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Clarification: Due to a reporter's error, a misstatement was made in the original version of this story. Two high-level employees were cut from the county's staff as part of the restructuring effort. Neither employee was let go for disciplinary or performance-related reasons, and neither position will be refilled, according to Chairman Keith Ellis.

Newton County is doing more road paving than last year, but is spending less money thanks to a restructured and streamlined transportation operation.

The public works, engineering and fleet maintenance departments have lost eight employees since July 2012, and the salary savings — which are expected to be permanent with the exception of two positions — have allowed the county to devote more money to paving. Chairman Keith Ellis said productivity is actually higher despite fewer employees.

Two high-level employees were let go as part of the restructuring — for a savings of $150,725 in salary and benefits — and the others either retired or left for other jobs, bringing the three departments to a total of 44 employees. Ellis said 46 transportation employees is the target, as the county is looking for mechanics.

County engineer Tom Garrett was promoted to transportation director in July and oversees the three departments. Ellis credits Garrett for playing a big role in increasing efficiency (Garrett has not yet received a raise).

"We allowed Tom to evaluate our structure," Ellis said. "People have different talents, and we’re trying to get them in the right spots."

County workers are laying more asphalt than ever before — around 400 tons a day in September — and working more days than before thanks to a cross-training initiative. Ellis said the county has laid 41 percent more asphalt in the 2013 calendar year, compared to 2012, because crews are now consistently working full weeks.

"Part of what was going on, is if we had a Monday or Friday, half the time we didn’t have a full crew because someone was out on vacation (or sick), so we couldn’t pave," Ellis said. "We’ve moved some people from the mowing crew to pick up the slack and pave on those days."

For example, the mowing crew is able to help with flagging for roadwork or shoveling asphalt with minimal training.

"Instead of weed-eating under a bridge, (mowing workers) can fill in for comp time (for paving workers)," Ellis said.

In addition, mechanic Chris Malcolm was promoted to assistant roads superintendent, which means there are more trained mechanics on staff, making more people available to fix equipment as it breaks down.

Despite the reduction in employees, Ellis said the fleet maintenance department has improved its workflow and no longer has a backlog of vehicles needing repairs. He said he sees more future savings for the fleet department, if the county can keep its vehicles in better shape and replace them more frequently with newer vehicles, when the cost makes sense.

"Then we’ll be able to devote even more money to our biggest infrastructure need, which is roads," Ellis said. When Ellis took office in January, he said, approximately 10 percent of the county’s 780 miles of roads received a failing grade of 50 on a scale of 100.

"We know we’ve made a decent dent of 1-2 percent this year. Ultimately in the next three years, we want to take that number to near zero and allocate money where it needs to be to prevent and preserve."

Ellis said the county is focusing on patching and paving major roads but hopes to be able to start helping out in more subdivisions in the future.

Ellis said he and Garrett are also communicating regularly with the Georgia Department of Transportation and seem to be getting more funding from the state. Ellis said he believes a change came when he pointed out that Newton County is the 25th largest of  Georgia’s 159 counties. In addition, Garrett and the engineering’s departments ability to do some design in-house has helped.

While the county still has many major transportation needs, Ellis said the key is to realize what’s realistic and what’s not.

"We can’t dream about widening Brown Bridge Road (to four lanes) if we don’t have the money. We have to realistic. GDOT has told us if we have worthwhile projects (within reason), they will fund them," Ellis said.