Budget Nixes Cooperation between Counties

How many times have you thought, “Oh, I can borrow that from my neighbor”? Whether it’s a cup of sugar or a haybine, western Wisconsin is full of cooperative people willing to help get the job done.

Just as people cooperate, so do local governments. This cooperation includes working together to keep roads in good shape. Towns, cities and villages rely on the local counties to help keep roads and bridges safe and snow plowed.

A provision in the new state budget, added late in the process, has local highway officials scratching their heads. The new law forbids counties from doing work with another county unless the project actually involves roadwork extending from their county into the next county. The new law also forbids counties from doing almost all work for a city within the county if the city’s population is over 5,000 people.

“For years, as long as I’ve had my job, the state’s been telling local government to cooperate,” a local highway commissioner told me. “This runs counter to everything we’ve been told to do.”

And counties do cooperate. All across western Wisconsin counties work together. A pavement painting machine in Vernon County, a machine that reclaims asphalt in Buffalo County, bridge expertise in St. Croix County and a hot mix plant in Trempealeau and Chippewa Counties are all shared to the benefit of neighbors.

Clark and Jackson Counties even share a highway commissioner.

Since the Governor signed the budget into law last Sunday, I’ve been on the phone with local officials who are very concerned their shared arrangements to get work done are being threatened.

The Governor justified his actions in an interview last week saying the change "will push local officials into finding the most cost-effective way for taxpayers." 

“Sometimes that’s going to mean using county employees or local government employees,” Walker said. “Other times it might mean using the private sector.”

Rural county highway commissioners disagree the new budget provision gives them a choice. Sharing equipment and personnel with surrounding counties saves money. Once that equipment and the personnel do not have the jobs to do, they will be gone.

Especially hard hit will be rural townships.

“The towns depend on us for their salt, their culverts and asphalt. The good price we get we pass on to them,” one county highway commissioner said. “We get a good price because we buy quite a bit. But if you are little town and you buy only two culverts, its going to cost you quite a bit more. Plus if you buy only two, there is going to be a delivery charge.”

Forbidding counties from working on projects within cities of over 5,000 people means the cooperation between our local counties and cities will end. Without the jobs highway workers do, counties will be forced to fire workers and sell equipment.

At the same time the new law went into effect, the budget makes deep cuts to money to repair local roads.

Proponents of this new law, like Representative Robin Vos from southeastern Wisconsin, say the law will bring more private sector jobs. My conversations with local officials tell me this is unlikely. With funds cut and costs rising, the road projects are just not likely to be done at all.

Plus local officials tell me they are concerned about the timely completion of road repair. “We work our schedules around each other,” a highway commissioner said. “Contractors won’t do that.”

County highway departments have cooperated for years. County boards purchased equipment knowing jobs in surrounding counties would help keep the equipment and crews busy.

Our local officials told me how limited funds dramatically cut back the amount of work they are able to do. Cutting budgets deeper and forbidding cooperation makes no sense at all.

The new law does not take effect until after the construction season ends this fall. Before then this law should be repealed. Local cooperation should be encouraged, not outlawed.