With cost-cutting on their minds, the Ellis County Commissioners on Monday evening asked Public Works Director Bill Ring to keep an eye out for opportunities to hire contractors for some of the county’s work.

That request surfaced when Ring asked the County Commission at their regular meeting to approve $152,133 to buy a new John Deere 6145M tractor and Schulte XH1000 Series 4 Rotary Cutter to be shared by Public Works and the Solid Waste Department for mowing.

The commissioners approved the purchase, but Commission Chair Dean Haselhorst said contractors could alleviate the shortage of finding candidates to fill jobs openings.

“Some of our stuff, I think we could hire contractors,” Haselhorst said, “whether it’s mowing or whatever it may be, that we could probably higher cheaper by using contractors versus in-house, especially as tough as it is hiring employees.”

The county mows the grass along the shoulders of the county’s 1,800 miles of roadway, some 3,600 actual miles driven to cover both sides of the road, Ring said.

The county has sold three old tractors in the past three years for $23,600 to help offset the cost. Currently the county has four tractors with mowers for the job.

“The county having four of these mowers, that’s a half-million dollars sitting out there that we use basically once a year,” Haselhorst said.

Ring said the new tractor will be used year-around, since it has more horsepower, to pull large equipment used for road work, like the sheepsfoot roller, a large rolling device with big spikes.

“You need a lot of horses to pull one of those down the road,” Ring said.

Haselhorst pointed out that Midwest Energy and other local companies are using contractors. County Commissioner Dustin Roths agreed with Haselhorst, particularly if employee benefit costs are added in to the cost.

“I think contract work sometimes is the best, especially with some of our hiring issues out of public works,” Roths said.

The county mows the roadsides from June to October for safety, Ring said. Mowing helps drivers see the shoulders and fence posts close to the road, as well as any cattle out, or deer running out. It also keeps snow from drifting as badly.

Roadside grass is much taller now than in the past, Ring said, because of changes in recent years in the grass planted by farmers for the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Native Big Blue Stem has replaced knee-high brome.

“Old 40 at the curve by Yocemento, the grass mid-summer was already up starting to cover the bottom of the sign,” Ring said. “So we have a lot more grass to cut, per mile, just because it’s doubled in size.”

Ring said contracting the mowing would cost more than the county doing it. His cost analysis showed that 1,639 hours of mowing at the rate of $65 an hour would run $105,000 for a contractor.

That compares to only $56,025 when the county mows, by figuring labor, not including benefits, plus equipment costs.

Ring said he contacted the Kansas Department of Transportation, which is looking at bidding out its mowing.

“Using their formula, where they charge a per-acre price, and then they figure out the width of the grass strip times the miles, basically 1.8 acres is in one mile with a 15 foot cut,” Ring said. “Using their numbers it would cost us $176,000 to pay for mowing.”

With outsourcing, Ring said his other concerns include liability insurance, as well as county time spent inspecting the work, handling complaints, and the potential for damage claims.

“If they would sling a rock through somebody’s windshield, as an example, they’re going to be calling me,” Ring said.

Public Works and Solid Waste, which mows the grass around the landfill, could share the cost.

Contracting may be an option in the future, Haselhorst said.

“I do think going forward Bill in your department, just because we’re short on labor a lot of times,” he said. “If we can look at areas that we can possibly hire a contractor, maybe bring that back before us, maybe save some areas like this.”