CULLMAN, Ala. – Kenneth Walker is seeking his third term as chairman of the Cullman County Commission. He will face off against three challengers in the March 3, 2020 Primary: Wiley Kitchens, Jeff Clemons and Philip Widner. All four men are Republicans, and since no Democrats are on the ballot, the winner of the March 3 vote will claim the seat.
The Tribune sat down with Walker to talk about his accomplishments and goals, as well as the challenges facing Cullman County.
Walker said he is proudest of the financial reserves achieved by the commission.
“I am most proud of being in the black for seven years,” said Walker. “I am also thankful that we were able to get 120 days of reserves. When I first came in, we were only at 40-50 days reserve. That was one of my main priorities was to have 120 days reserves. You never know when you are going to need it. You never know when you are going to have a tornado or a disaster happen. That was one of my big concerns.”
He quickly brought up what seems to be the biggest issue voters want to discuss: roads.
“I am glad that we have our own paving equipment. We were able to purchase it and be able to pave roads cheaper than we can have it contracted,” he said. “I know the last couple of years don’t look like we’ve done a lot, but if people think about all the rain we’ve had over the last couple of years… every time you turn around, we are paving one day and it rains for four days, so we have to wait for it to dry up before we can do anything else. If it rains for four days, it takes us 10 days to get it started back. We are paving roads, but we aren’t chip sealing roads. It’s costing us a little more money, but it’s the right way and the best thing for the roads, asphalt instead of chip sealing. They last longer.”
He continued, “The first time I ran, I had a lot of complaints about roads not being striped. I think we’ve striped more roads in seven years than have ever been striped. Nighttime vision is critical and we have tried to help that. Also, the interchange at (Interstate 65 Exit) 305 was a huge deal for the industries down County Road 222. We were able to get an $18 million grant to get that built. The boat ramps are a huge deal down at Smith Lake Park. There’s a lot of fisherman that use that, and in the summertime, lots of folks waiting in line all the time but we took care of it. It was a $1.3 million dollar job that was a grant. We did a little in-kind service, but not a whole lot.”
Walker said his main goal is roads. He said he is focusing on what he is aware is on the minds of most people in Cullman County. He explained the obstacles facing the commission and the plan in place to overcome them.
“We are a unit system, and in a unit system, the engineer is over your roads. In our county, our engineer has four superintendents. Those superintendents of the road department give a list to the engineer with the worst roads in their districts. They meet and sit down and talk and grade them on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst. That is how we get our road plan.”
From 2015-2019, Walker said that the County has spent more than $18 million paving roads.
He added, “It’s costing us a little more money because we are having to go in and put a base down. I remember as a kid, I’ve been in construction all my life and I’ve always paid attention no matter what the construction is, but I remember as a kid that on what I believe is County Road 1422 now- I’ll never will forget it and I will never forget daddy talking about it, but the motor grader was in the ditch throwing dirt up on the road and leveling it out. It wasn’t anything but sand, debris and topsoil. It wasn’t good dirt. (It was) leveling it out and putting tar and gravel over it and that’s happened for many, many, many years.”
According to Walker, one of the greatest challenges he faces is correcting the mistakes of the past and the many years of chip sealing roads.
He said, “Chip seal is the worst thing Cullman County has ever seen. That is a road nightmare.”
Walker hopes the new gas tax will lead to being able to pave more roads.
“As spread out as most of the paving jobs have been, most people don’t really see it. Most people go to work, go home or go to the high school for a sporting event and they aren’t out in the county. I hope people will be able to see it,” he said.
The first check from the new gas tax is expected to arrive this week.
The manner in which the State of Alabama distributes the gas tax money is another challenge. The numbers below were compiled by The Tribune in 2018:
- Cullman County has 2,393 miles of paved roads, second only to Jefferson County in raw mileage. Of these miles, ALDOT maintains 187 miles (Highways 31, 69, 91, 278, 157; and I-65) and 643 miles are maintained by municipalities and private entities.
- The Cullman County Road Department maintains 1,563 miles of roads in unincorporated parts of the county, surpassing even Jefferson County in that respect.
- Though Cullman County is second in raw road mileage and first in county-maintained mileage, it is 17th in line for distribution of fuel tax revenues from the State. Those revenues are not distributed according to mileage, but primarily by population, and each county’s revenue goes into the big pot for distribution. In other words, buying gas in a certain county does not mean that all of the fuel tax you pay goes to that county. (It’s important to note that the Cullman County Road Department is responsible for non-incorporated areas; roads inside municipalities are the responsibility of those municipalities, except for state roads.)
- The cheapest form of paving, chip-seal, costs more than $30,000 per mile to apply. At the other end, the asphalt paving recommended for heavily used roads averages $102,000 per mile.
- At that high end and with no unforeseen extra expenses, the repaving of all county-maintained road mileage would cost $159,426,000. Even at the low end, the cost would well exceed $46 million.
Walker also discussed his qualifications and why he believes he is the best candidate for the job.
“I think I am more qualified because I’ve been in office for seven years,” he said. “To be honest, I wasn’t qualified when I first got elected in 2012. To a certain extent I was, but I am still learning stuff every day. There’s so much. When you take a budget of $68 million with a 2020 general fund budget of $22, 837,000, there’s a lot of moving parts in a county government.”
Walker believes that bringing in an in-house attorney was another one of his best accomplishments and noted that doing so saves the county $250,000 a year.
“He (Cullman County Attorney Chad Floyd) is doing something all the time. You’ve got something with the sheriff’s department, something with the parks, CARTS, sanitation, animal control, the probation office- there’s something all the time.”
When asked about any misconceptions he believed the public might have, Walker answered, “I hate to keep bringing roads up, but that’s the biggest problem the county commission has got, has always had and will always have- $2,000 per mile a road. That’s not even enough to maintain a mile of road.”
How much does it cost the county to pave a mile of road?
Walker said, “With our new machinery, it costs us about $65,000 a mile. We are getting $2,000. Our 2020 road budget is $10,575,321. People say that with a $10 million road budget, we should be seeing roads paved. That’s’ true, they should. With that being said, that includes salaries, insurance, materials, maintenance on equipment and vehicles. That’s on everything, not just paving. The new gas tax, after three years when we get the full amount, it’s going to be but a little more that $1 million a year. That might add 5 miles of road per year to asphalt. It’s not going to add a lot.”
Walker is happy about what Cullman County does to provide for its senior. According to the Cullman County Commission on Aging, programs offered through the senior centers saved Cullman County seniors $720,000 through SenioRx, which helps those over age 55 receive free medications from pharmaceutical companies. Also, through assisting seniors with Medicare Part D options during last year’s open enrollment, the Cullman County Commission on Aging will save seniors $987,372 in premiums and copays for 2020.
Walker added, “Our seniors are dear to my heart and other counties are envious of our seniors and what all the commission does for our seniors. The Rx program is huge.”
Walker credits part of his success to having “the best department heads in the state of Alabama,” saying,, “You get a new commission in here, ‘Well, I said if I got elected I was going to get rid of him and put my buddy in there.’ You can look for the past seven years, that has not happened while I was in office and it will not happen. Put the right person in for the right job and we are going to work it as a business. We aren’t going to do ‘good ol’ boy’ moves. I haven’t done it and I’m not going to do it.”
What does Walker want people to know about him?
“I am fair, I am honest and I am trustworthy. I started running in October 2011 and I’ve never promised anything but one thing. That one thing I promised is I’ll do the best of my ability.”
As for the upcoming election, he said, “Everything is in the Lord’s hands, and I am going to let him take care of every bit of it.”
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