Originally created 08/13/02

Group sees job vacancy as a hazard



It's a vacant city position that Priscilla Bence argues has become an obstacle to safer roads in Augusta.

"I think our priorities are wrong," she said.

Recently, Mrs. Bence, the coordinator of Safe Communities Coalition Augusta, went before city commissioners to contend that the city's traffic engineering position, which has been open since September, should be filled quickly, even if it means offering more money for the position.

She said former traffic engineer Jim Huffstetler made roads safer in the Augusta area in his four years by conducting studies and changing traffic signal times to encourage safer traffic flows.

At some intersections, she said, Mr. Huffstetler also had solid-green traffic lights changed to green arrow lights. That, she said, prevented motorists from pulling out into oncoming traffic.

Mrs. Bence can now cite an increase in traffic injuries from 2,066 in 2000 to 3,246 in 2001. Her group reports that injuries decreased from 1996 to 2000, but they began rising in 2001 and continue to do so in 2002.

Mrs. Bence said expenses on traffic engineering projects also decreased in the past year, from $1,370,000 to $1,210,000.

"I was just so concerned about these extremely high rates," she said. "I think you could say there's a possible association (with the lack of a traffic engineer)."

Dennis Ellis, Richmond County's traffic technician, disagrees.

"Injuries and fatalities are cyclical," he said.

However, he does say the traffic engineering position is needed to keep roads safe. Lately, he has taken over some of the engineering duties. At the same time, he said, his department has been short a draftsman and a design engineer.

"We've done the best that we could," he said. "But it has stretched our efforts."

Road designs also have been curbed.

"There's very little we can do in design work," Mr. Ellis said. "Much of what has to be done has to be contracted ... I don't understand how it's cheaper to contract out than to use city forces."

Then there's the decrease in traffic sign installers. Mr. Ellis said that since the city's consolidation, the number of installers has decreased from 14 to five. He said damaged traffic signs need to be replaced daily.

"When we had 14 people, we didn't have enough," he said. "How do you think we're doing now? We wanted to consolidate to make government smaller, but I'm not sure we're making citizens any safer."

Still, Mr. Ellis said, Teresa Smith, the county's public works director, has worked hard at bringing in a new traffic engineer.

"She's tried several times," he said, adding that only one qualified person has applied.

"We couldn't meet his salary requirements," he said.

The position currently offers a salary range of $37,445 to $59,911, according to Augusta-Richmond County's official Web site. The job was posted Dec. 13.

City Administrator George Kolb said a failure to fill the traffic engineering position is symptomatic of a citywide compensation problem.

"We're having a difficult time attracting employees of that caliber with the salary we pay," Mr. Kolb said.

But he disputes the argument that the open engineering position is causing accidents to increase, in part, because the city has - in the interim - been contracting out some traffic services.

"I don't believe it's a major factor," Mr. Kolb said. "I think we need to take into consideration that population has increased and traffic has increased."

But even if the position is filled, Mrs. Bence said, cities comparable to Augusta such as Savannah and Columbus already have at least two traffic engineers. She said their typical salary range is $40,000 to $70,000.

"I'd like to know when we're going to get more than one traffic engineer," she said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904.