LEESBURG -- As he eases his 1999 F-250 pickup over the two miles of Old Leslie Road, Lee County Commissioner Dennis Roland expertly turns into each slide on the rain-soaked dirt road, never coming close to the looming ditches on either side.
Over the course of a couple of hours on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Roland talks with a visitor while avoiding dangerous washouts and knee-deep potholes on some of the 200-plus miles of Lee County's dirt roads.
Mud splashes up on his windshield as he hits the deeper of the ruts in the roads, and when we get back to his house on Georgia Highway 32, his beat-up old white Ford pickup with 500,000 miles on the odometer has a layer of orange to match the dirt on the roads we've ridden down.
"In reality, there just is not money available to pave a lot of the roads in the county," said Roland, whose Smithville/Chokee district in northern Lee County contains around 190 of the 200 miles of the county's unpaved roads. "The state's cut the (transportation) money they send us, and the money we do get is going to the (planned North) Bypass.
"We use most of our SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) transportation funding for resurfacing, so there's just not much left for paving roads."
While there is an entrenched portion of the county's population that has no interest in seeing its roads paved, a growing number of citizens has begun to call for government intervention.
CALLS FOR HELP
Sam Johnson and Paul Clayton have spoken to the Lee County Commission twice this year asking that Old Leslie be given such consideration.
"I wish they'd at least build the road up so that there would be somewhere for water to go when it rains," Clayton said Friday. "As it is now, any time it rains the ruts in that soft, wet dirt just get deeper and deeper. The bottom of your vehicle drags in the mud, and the road is so rough your dash just rattles.
"Some of our commissioners keep saying people don't want their roads paved, but I've got a petition signed by 20 families on our road asking that they do something. There's only one person I've talked with who doesn't want (Old Leslie) paved."
Similar complaints have come in from citizens with homes on Usry, Armenia, Laramore, Gator Pond, Mays -- which was recently closed for more than three weeks because it was too washed out to safely drive upon -- Courthouse, Dan Green, Livingston, Childress, Eagle Pond and dozens of other unpaved Lee roads.
"It gets to the point that you hate to even go out of the house," Margo Clayton, Paul's wife, says.
The question facing Lee County officials is one of determining diminishing returns. At what point is it more costly to maintain certain roads than it is to pave them?
"That's a tough one," Roland said. "They tell me it costs about a million dollars a mile to pave a road. You do the math on that, and the county would end up paying about $9 million a year over the next 15 years if we were to pave the 200 miles of dirt roads we have. That's about half of what our budget is now."
Lee County Public Works has drawn rave reviews from local citizens for its work on the county's road system. Even with 2010 rain totals already topping 30 inches in portions of the county, Public Works has pretty much kept pace with the abundant rain.
But the department's interim director admits that the law of diminishing returns is in danger of coming into play in parts of the county.
"You look at all the maintenance work we're doing on a couple of these roads, and you get the idea that it might be more cost-effective to pave them," Mike Sistrunk said. "We devise a strategic paving list on roads where we feel there is the most damage, but we don't really have a say on what roads actually get paved.
"We make recommendations, but there are a number of committees and boards who make the decisions."
County Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander says the familiar X-factor -- money -- is crucial to any paving plan for the county's miles of dirt roads. But he offers encouragement that funding sources are being sought for some.
Alexander notes that SPLOST and stimulus money has been set aside to pave a portion of Flowing Well Road, State Aid funds are being sought for Armena Road, while another possible funding source is being researched to pave feeder roads off Stock's Dairy Road: Ragan and Thomas streets, Donald and David roads and Lane Drive.
"We're hoping we qualify for Community Development Block Grant funding for those roads," the planning director said. "Since that is a low- to moderate-income area, we're hoping to qualify for CDBG money. That's a cost-effective way for us to get some of these strategic roads paved.
"We try to look at the number of houses (on the roads), traffic and maintenance costs when determining which roads should be paved. You have to look at things like traffic patterns and the movement of emergecny vehicles in certain areas."
Roland and County Commission Chair Ed Duffy are aware that the road-paving issue is a growing topic of concern as they prepare to run for re-election later this year. But Roland's not so sure how much support he's going to get on the commission.
"Unfortunately, folks in my district have all the dirt roads, while all the other commissioners represent areas with paved roads," he said. "Are they going to concentrate on dirt roads when it's not that big a concern in their districts?
"I'm one of those folks who believes we have to get back to basics with our services: education, protection and adequate roads. I'm certainly in favor of paving some of the more strategic roads in the county, but it always comes down to money."
And money, County Administrator Alan Ours notes, is in short supply these days.
"If we had an unlimited supply of money, it would be wonderful to pave every mile of dirt road in the county," he said. "But that's not the reality. What is reality is that historically, Lee County is known for having the best-maintained dirt roads in the state. That's proved by the comments I hear from people outside the county.
"People just have to realize that when you get 30 inches of rain in three months' time, it creates havoc. It takes time to restore dirt roads to an acceptable condition. It's been our position all along to strategically pave as many roads as possible. We just have to be careful how we use our limited state and local funds."