With a pause in the rain so far this week, Ellis County Public Works employee Tim Epperson on Wednesday morning was operating a John Deere motor grader on Smoky Hill River Road, making tracks to fix the gravel a half mile east of the intersection with Toulon Avenue.

“I’m just trying to get it back in shape,” said Epperson of the sandy gravel road washed out by the onslaught of heavy rains in recent weeks. “If I don’t have to stop and fix anything I can do probably anywhere from 10 to 13 miles a day.”

But that wasn’t happening Wednesday.

“I’ve got a real bad spot down there,” he said, pointing east on Smoky Hill River Road. “There’s a low spot there and a waterway, where they put in a culvert this summer. With all the rain, it’s washing the rock and stuff away.”

Epperson has worked for the county for eight years, five of those operating one of the county’s 15 graders.

Soon three of the county graders will be replaced with two new ones.

The Ellis County Commissioners on Monday approved the purchase of two new 12M3 Caterpillar graders from Foley Equipment, of Wichita, for $421,000.

The graders could arrive from Wichita within a week, said Public Works Director Bill Ring.

The county is trading in three of its old graders, for which Foley is allotting $113,900, reducing the total $544,000 purchase price, and reducing the cost of each grader from $267,500 each to $210,550 each.

The two are brand new 2018 demo units, never titled, purchased at 2018 prices and covered by the full seven-year, 8,500-mile factory warranty, Ring said.

The county in 2017 purchased a 2016 12M3 leftover at 2016 pricing. The 2018s are identical to that one.

“We’ve had great success doing that with the one we bought in ’17, and the fact that it’s a year model different, unlike vehicles, it really doesn’t matter,” Ring told the commissioners during their regular Monday evening meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St. “It’s a new piece of equipment. It’s spec’d out the way we would normally take a grader, with the appropriate options and the appropriate tires that we use.”

The county uses what’s called a snow-plus tire to handle snowy roads.

Ring said the new graders are replacing a 27-year-old Caterpillar 140G with 18,000 hours and a bad transmission; a 13-year-old Caterpillar 140H with 14,000 hours and a bad transmission; and an 11-year-old John Deere with 13,000 hours and engine problems.

“It’s obvious we make sure we run our graders 'til they have like 18,000 hours on them,” said Commission Chair Dean Haselhorst. “Does CAT offer extended warranty?”

“Typically they won’t do anything over 10,000 hours,” said Foley representative Jay Wade.

“Should we look at possibly trading earlier?” Haselhorst asked. “They’re going to be worth more, obviously,”

“In the past, you guys have traded a lot earlier than that, but kind of got out of that practice over the last how-many years it’s been,” Wade said. “It’s certainly something to look at.”

Money for the purchase is set aside in a capital purchases fund, said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.

Repairing the old ones isn’t an economical option, making three traded in for two a good idea, Ring said.

“I’m not going to come ask you to put 40-50-60,000 (dollars) in a machine that’s that old. It’s not worth it,” Ring said.

“The way a grader is structured,” he said, “the transmission is underneath the engine as part of the rear-wheel assembly, so if you need transmission work done you gotta take the engine out.”

An engine with 12,000-plus hours should probably be repaired too, said Ring. “It was right at $62,000 to put a new engine in it and then have the transmission gone through.”

Currently the county has two graders out of commission. Commissioner Dustin Roths said it’s better not to delay purchases.

“When things get tight, this is the type of thing that we try to push off and push off, and sometimes it bites us even harder,” he said. “This is something that is concerning to me, because this is the stuff that’s actually hitting the road.”

That may be important as the county prepares to look at hiring contract labor, he said.

“I suggest we at least get good machines, and the guys we’re paying a wage to are hitting the road and getting things done,” Roths said, noting it’s a way of controlling fixed costs. “We’re probably keeping an employee a lot longer on a new grader as opposed to a 1992.”