The Cullman County Commission placed a stamp of approval on a project to widen U.S. Highway 278 in the western part of the county Monday.

During its meeting, the Commission approved a measure allowing Chairman Wiley Kitchens to sign letters asking for federal funds to complete a corridor study on the highway.

While the final details are unclear, County Engineer Phillip Widner said the 49.7-mile project will run from I-65 to Alabama Highway 13 in the Natural Bridge area of Winston County.

The letters signed by Kitchens serve as a matter of technicality in the project, which will be paid for by federal funds.

Kitchens said that he met with Winston County officials earlier this month to discuss aspects of the project, which will benefit both counties.

"It will probably help them (Winston) more than us, but regardless, it will be a tremendous boost to both of us," Kitchens said after the meeting.

Widner estimated that the corridor study will cost approximately $2.5 million in federal funds. He said the whole construction project will likely cost at least $500 million, possibly up to $750 million considering inflation.

"This is a 10-to 15-year project," Kitchens said. "Hopefully we'll all live to see its completion."

In an unrelated matter, the Commission also voted not to raise health insurance rates for county employees, despite being advised to do so by their program administrator Blue Cross Blue Shield.

According to Kitchens, while the county is technically self insured, employee claims are usually covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield which pays up front allowing the county to reimburse them later.

Citing the increasing costs of health care, the insurance company recently advised the county to change the money it sets aside for insurance claims from $400 a year for individual employees and $900 a year for families to $393 for individuals and $1,004 for families.

Those figures represent estimates of what the county expects to pay out each year per person covered by the county insurance system. In general, employees pay 10 percent or more of the expense, but rising health care costs could increase the employee contribution in the future.

According to Kitchens, a surplus left over from last year will allow the county to absorb the higher costs for at least one more year. He said the commission needs cooperation from department heads in reducing the size their workforce to keep low.

The county spent $2.8 million in health care claims last year, down from the $3.2 million spent the previous year.

Kitchens said those numbers are much higher than the $1.7 million that they spent in 1999, the last time the rate for employees was increased.

In other news, the Commission:

• Approved a Road Department project to stripe and re-stripe more than 40 miles of roads at an approximate cost of $50,000. Widner said the painting was badly needed and that he hoped they would continue with painting projects next year too.

• Approved the release of $100,000 surety bond for the Sheltered Cove Subdivision and accepted one of the subdivision's roads into the county system, creating County Road 2011.

• Approved a measure allowing Kitchens and Cullman County Emergency Management Administration Director Phyllis Little to apply for a $10,000 state grant to rewrite the county's mitigation plan.

• Approved a measure to continue the counties $6.5 million tax levy, which must be re-approved every February and is not a new or increased tax.

• Approved the surplus of a 1997 Chevy truck from the Cullman County Animal Shelter, citing needed repairs and more than 200,000 miles on the truck.

• Approved a bid from Charles E. Watts of Gadsden for labor on all county paving projects for the year. Watts bid $0.2275 per square yard if he hauls the aggregate and $0.1875 per square yard if the county hauls the aggregate. Widner said Watts was one of the only contractors in the area that could handled the high volume of work needed by the county.

• Approved a bid from Bagby Elevator to service the elevators in the courthouse at a cost of $680 per month for the 2006 fiscal year.

• Approved a bid from Traffic Signs Inc. to provide road signs for the county for the year at a cost of $30,550.

• Resolved to pledge support for those serving in the U.S. Army National Guard and Reserves and asked other companies do the same.

• Tabled a request from Associate Commissioner Stanley Yarbrough to re-appoint a member of the Walter Water Board, citing a need for more detailed information.

• Tabled a measure to use county inmates to form road cleaning crews to be used throughout the county. The measure calls for the county to pay for their meals.

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