When a Phelps County Emergency Services Board (PCESB) member received a phone call recently from a county resident who asked about replacing a private drive sign, it raised more questions, such as who is responsible for replacing such signs and who will pay for them?
PCESB Treasurer Buz Harvey raised the issue during the board’s March 14 meeting after getting a call from a resident who lives on a private drive off Highway Y.
The resident said she believes the sign was knocked over by a snow plow. While she was not placing blame, she asked Harvey how to get a new sign installed. After the resident was “bounced around” among the county clerk’s office, road department and assessor’s office and finally to Harvey, she never received an answer.
“We decided as a group (PCESB) that we were no more obligated to put a private drive sign up than the post office is obligated to put a mailbox up,” Harvey said.
PCESB member Stephen Zap, agreed, saying the board is no more responsible for a private drive sign than the maintenance of that road. PCESB member Stoney Byrne said he feels that the people who built the private drive should also be responsible for buying the sign.
Harvey continued, “There’s no reason she (the resident) needs to be bounced around … there needs to be a method by which we do this … We’re not in the sign business. We don’t do signs. The city does signs.”
It was noted that the City of Rolla makes most of the signs for the county. Beginning around 1994, the county road department placed all of the road signs in unincorporated areas of Phelps County, including private drive signs, Harvey said.
From 2000 to 2010 the county road department placed an average of 35 private drive signs per year at an average cost of $115 per sign.
“We have to have some measure that when a private drive sign goes away, there has to be some mechanism where somebody can pick up a phone and call somebody besides Buz Harvey or Paul Rueff or Carl Collet (all PCESB members) and say, ‘I’ve got a private drive sign that is down. Can you get it up for me?’ The answer is that the county is in the sign business just like county is in the addressing business,” Harvey said.
Harvey noted that the PCESB contracts with Phelps County to provide the 911 addresses and that the PCESB pays the county about $2,000 per month for that service.
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“We’re doing a dis-service to the people of Phelps County if we’re sitting around bouncing phone calls all over the place. We’ve got to fix it,” Harvey said.
PCESB Chair Paul Rueff said he spoke with County Clerk Carol Bennett, who told him the road department doesn’t wish to make signs for private drives, even for a fee.
District One Commissioner Larry Stratman, who attended the PCESB meeting, said the commission has a different idea.
“I think what we’re prepared to do as a commission is to get the signs produced for us and install the signs. And then at the end of the month, we send a bill to this body (PCESB).”
“We’re not going to pay that bill,” Rueff shot back.
Stratman said when the PCESB was formed, he said, “There is a mandate in the ordinance that you will have these signs and through the first 16 years or 18 years, 911 money paid for those private drive signs. It was a funded mandate when it was first put in place. This body has turned it into an unfunded mandate.”
However, Zap said a landline phone tax paid for that and because fewer landlines are being installed, that fund is dwindling.
Rueff showed a copy of the ordinance for the inception of the 911 emergency services in the county and said, “I read this thing over and I find no place that it mandates that.”
Rueff said according to previous discussions with J. Kent Robinson, former counsel to the PCESB, about private drive signs, “His conclusion was that we should not be in the sign business. It wasn’t our responsibility. We consider that part of private infrastructure.”
“I don’t think the county is wrong about not wanting to pay for them. What I think they may be wrong about is whose responsibility it is anyway,” Harvey said, comparing private drives to driveways, which are maintained by their property owners.
Harvey said the City of Rolla or businesses that make private drive signs need to make them available to residents who live along private drives.
“No matter who pays for the sign, somebody needs to respond,” Harvey said. “I don’t care who does it as long as it’s somebody who meets the standards we have in the county for a road sign ... I’m not out to be a jerk about this. I do want the people in Phelps County to still have reasonable access to 911 services.”
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PCESB Pam Grow said once a solution is found for replacing private drive signs, she suggested putting contact information on the county’s website under the frequently asked questions section.
Rueff talked to Rolla Mayor Bill Jenks III about having the city make the signs available to the residents, but Jenks told Rueff that he doesn’t want the city to interfere with private businesses, who may be willing to make the signs.
Rueff said he would explore possibilities, such as The Sheltered Workshop, to make the signs. PCESB member Stoney Byrne also suggested contacting Star Sign Company.
Rueff noted that he would make no commitment on behalf of the PCESB while considering options.
“If there is nobody around that we can find who wants to build private road signs, then I think the door is at least open for the city to do it on a per sign cost basis to the constituent,” Rueff said.
Stratman said, “The only way it’s going to get done correctly and timely is to have an entity in charge of this. If we wait for the three people who live down a private road to replace their sign, it’s not going to happen … so private drive signs are going to disappear over time and they’re disappearing now because no one is replacing them.”
Stratman added that emergency responders will be liable if they cannot find a place because a private drive sign is missing.
“We just want the easiest way to get this done because I think the people of Phelps County deserve this,” Stratman said.
Harvey said the county is already routinely replacing signs and that “there is a system already in place that puts the green signs with white letters on them (county road signs) all over the county and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t piggyback on that. It’s there. It’s existing.”
“We’re under no obligation to put those green signs back up,” Stratman said. “We do that because it’s the right thing to do.”