Roadside Gutter - Putnam Sentinel
A roadside gutter installed along Road 6 between Road O-6 and Road O. (Putnam Sentinel/Martin Verni)

PUTNAM COUNTY — Our nation’s roadways belong to the public which traverses them. They are a ‘public good.’ Their creation and upkeep is one of the near countless things that our local, state, and federal government does to ‘promote the general welfare’ as called for in the constitution’s preamble.

Like nearly all infrastructure, maintaining our roadways also benefits businesses large and small, from the farmer to the industrialist, and most everyone in between. This is why, one supposes, that if county-led efforts to improve a roadway just happen to provide measurable benefits to adjacent private land, it’s not too remarkable.

But, what if the opposite occurs? What if a private landowner reaches out to the county for assistance in dealing with water not draining from a farm field, and by extending such assistance a roadway is improved? If the motivation begins with improving private property by improving public infrastructure, is that an appropriate use of public funds, taxpayer money?

In Putnam County, the answer is, ‘Yes, that’s just fine.’

Recently, a reader contacted The Sentinel about a 1400 foot small ditch or ‘gutter’ that had been installed in the county’s right-of-way along Road 6 between Roads O-6 and O, just northwest of Pandora-Gilboa High School. The stretch of roadway previously had no ditch along its side to capture water rolling off of it during storms. In adding the gutter, the county also expanded the narrow roadway’s shoulder, a safety improvement for those who travel along it.

These were not the reasons that the county pursued this work. Instead, the work occurred for the reasons stated a little further above. A farmer wanted aditch installed to drain the water that gathered on a low point of their field.

The county paid a contractor $1,100 to install the 1400 foot gutter. Additionally, four county workers spent a total of 47 hours at the location, for a cost of $1,123.77 in wages. County equipment was also used at a cost of $909.50. And, the county purchased stone for the job at a cost of $179.51.

In total, the project cost taxpayers $3,312.78. The landowner paid for a driveway pipe, the cost of which is unknown. Regarding the county’s cost, the money comes from the engineer’s roadway improvement fund, budgeted at around $1.1 million per year. It’s a very small drop in the bucket, in the grand scheme of things, but does that make it okay?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly wage for a worker in Putnam County is $745. Meaning that, on average, a person would have to work a little over four weeks, or one month to earn enough to pay for these improvements, and yes, that’s before taxes are taken out of the paycheck.

In recent years, the county averages about a dozen or so of these types of projects annually. They’re all around the same cost too, though at least two in recent years have been significantly more.

The details on this specific project as well as the information on the broader program comes from the current County Engineer, Mike Lenhart. He also shared the form that is completed whenever the county enters into a ‘mutual agreement’ that involves installing a ‘roadside gutter,’ which may sometimes include work outside the public right-away. The revision date on the form indicated August of 2004, long before Lenhart entered office. He also showed an earlier form he had found in the county’s files. At eight and a half by 14 inches, it was longer than what is now standard office size paper, and had begun to yellow.

In other words, the form was old, making it easy to infer that the program is too.

While it’s a program that Lenhart inherited, it is also one that he supports. “If we can fix that whole stretch of road for shoulder and berm and everything else, [we’ll do it].” he said.

“We basically figure, [based on] the road width, what the road width should be, and then we put at least a six foot shoulder, and then you have to slope down to the ditch. That’s how we determine what the distance is off of the road.”

“And, that’s a road, like I said, that’s pretty busy. We can put a lot better stone and improve the berm…We don’t go looking, necessarily for those projects, though sometimes we do, but in this particular case, they found us. But, as long as it’s a mutual agreement, you know, and it’s not very expensive, we’ll certainly look into it.”

Lenhart’s explanation is also reflective of how elected officials often prioritize repair and maintenance work in the areas they oversee. Public input is important. A homeowner may not notice that their street is particularly busy, until they have a pre-adolescent old enough to begin walking to school or the bus stop. A request of village officials for a stop sign in such a situation is not uncommon. While beneficial to a specific person for a specific reason, it also benefits overall safety, which is always Lenhart’s reason for approving projects as well.

But, that example doesn’t also improve private land. And, Lenhart couldn’t recall ever turning down a project. He also agreed that there’s no such thing as a road that can’t be made safer, drain better, or be otherwise improved.

The project was also only 1400 feet, on a roadway that’s often one of the busiest in the county, frequently driven on by teenagers and with farmland on all sides. If safety and water management are such issues, as they often are in the county, why just over a quarter mile of work? Why not more?

The explanation does not have the feel of a round peg going into a square hole, it’s more honest than that. But, it does feel like a round peg going into an oval hole. It fits, sort of. Makes sense, mostly. And, it remains taxpayer money helping out a farmer because he asked, with little oversight. There are no ditch maintenance hearings or public notices.

“I’ve never seen one of these,” outgoing County Commissioner John Love says later when shown the gutter request form. It was late in the day last Thursday, and The Sentinel was only able to discuss the program very briefly.

“The state, and probably the county too, is required to provide drainage for the roads,” commented Commissioner Vince Schroeder. “And, if it floods a crop from that road lacking drainage, especially the water that runs off of it, if it floods a crop, the road should pay the damage to the crop. If that road is in fact the reason that it flooded.”

Roadway drainage was also mentioned by Lenhart. Though, it is not believed a survey was conducted determining the source of the water on the field.

“I think we’re going to have to have a discussion. I would like to hear Michael’s explanation of it,” added Commissioner Michael Lammers. He then promised such a discussion during the first meeting of the new year.

Very soon after, incoming Commissioner John Schlumbohm of Pandora stepped into the room. He saw pictures of the gutter that had been shared with the other commissioners, but had not heard any of the explanation as to what those photos showed. As the now former Mayor of Pandora, he was already familiar with the work, recognizing the stretch of road and the gutter, but he did not, it seemed, know the specifics on why the work was done.

“It’s a nice ditch,” he said unprompted. “I thought they did a [nice job]. Because they pushed the berm over to the road, and made the berm wider.” When asked if he felt the road was now safer, he gave an enthusiastic, “Yeah.”