GREENVILLE — Darke County Engineer Jim Surber sits behind a desk full of current projects, resulting in piles of papers scattered every which way.
Darke County has the most bridges and the most miles of hard-surfaced roads of any Ohio County. The responsibility for the 521 miles of county roads, the bridges on those roads, some bridges within municipalities and all bridges on township roads rests with Surber, who after more than 40 years knows every one of them.
According to Surber, maintaining the county’s local roads and bridges is a challenging task as follows: the average Ohio county has 391 miles of county road; Darke has 521; the average Ohio County has 297 bridges, Darke has 531. As County Engineer, Surber said he is responsible for more than 60 percent more infrastructure and receives eight percent less state funding than the average Ohio County: state funding from fuel and licenses taxes in the average Ohio County is $5.1 million; Darke County receives $4.7 million. The difference is due to the relatively large area of the county, in comparison to its population and the number of registered vehicles. It is within these parameters that he has found satisfaction.
“That is why I like this job, because it has always been a tremendous challenge,” he said. “It’s forced us to try run things as efficiently as possible and to use our own people to do things, making us versatile. In the past 40 years, we have widened and improved many roads. Ninety percent of the bridges that have ever been built in this county, have been built with our own employees and equipment. I’ve designed every one of them and have drawn all the plans, in this office. I draw them out, then my guys put it on the computer and actually draw the plans on the computer, because I am as artistic as an anvil.”
Surber works with the Darke County Commissioners and Township Trustees in the following areas: maintenance, repair, widening, resurfacing, reconstruction and construction of pavements on the county highway system, including traffic control, safety, mowing and snow removal. He is also responsible for all engineering duties relating to drainage and petitioned ditch projects, and is the Tax Map Draftsman for the county. Surber said in comparison to other counties, Darke is unique because the roads are nice and square on a grid, and the property lines are all generally at right angles. It was surveyed off into sectionalized lands, where everything was surveyed off into mile-square sections.
“Where I came from, south of Hillsboro, was Virginia military ground,” he said. “They came in there and surveyed off random tracts of property and the terrain, and gave them to Revolutionary War veterans. As a result, lines and roads run every which way. You can’t dead reckon – you have to know where you are going down there.”
Surber attributes the differences between counties, to differences in interpretation of the law.
“I have always compared it to religion,” he said. “There is only one Bible, yet all these churches reading the same bible believe and practice differently. There is only one Ohio Revised Code, which is the law of the land and the state, yet I don’t care what two counties you want to look at and in which department in that county you want to look, no two do the same things alike.”
In addition to engineering, Surber is a manager of 27 people at the highway department and four in his office.
“I have had some really good people over the years working for the county,” he said.
One of those is Darke County Highway Department Superintendent Shane Coby, who has worked for Surber 20 years. He describes Surber as thorough, fair and “at work an awful lot.”
“I don’t think you can find anyone more fair than Jim Surber,” he said. “I might sound biased, as I am his employee, but in all honesty, that is what I think of him. He is at work every single day religiously, 10 hours a day, with maybe a couple days off. He listens to new ideas and works with you. A lot of times with long tenures, people don’t change. He has made changes to go with the advanced technology and has stayed active with them. He thoroughly enjoys his job.”
While he is in his niche, Surber said he never knew what he wanted to be in life. He started in this business as a surveyor, and decided he was interested in roads and bridges too. A county engineer is elected every four years by the voters of the county, with a salary set by the state legislature, and is required by law to hold Ohio licenses as a professional engineer and professional land surveyor. The requirements to qualify for the job take someone four to six years past college, Surber said. During the time Surber has spent as county engineer, many things have changed.
“When I started out, we surveyed like George Washington, requiring about five people” he said.
New technology has brought in more efficient systems, such as the Global Positioning System, allowing surveying to be done by one person. Increased costs of equipment have resulted in dump trucks going from about $16,000 to about $140,000. And paving has changed from 2” thick roads, costing about $10,000 a mile, to 1-1/4” thick roads costing about $75,000 a mile, Surber said. In addition, a late 1970’s cost to build an entire 110-foot bridge was about $40,000 to $50,000. It now costs about that price just for the deck. While work continues to hold his attention and interest, Surber says he has no plans of retiring.
“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, then what is the sign of an empty desk?” he asked.
EDS NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series titled “Elected Officials” that will aim to give reader’s insight into the role of elected officials in Darke County.