Rules to Privatize County Road Work Hurts Local Cooperation

Buried in the state budget are new rules limiting cooperation among local government to fix roads. The budget would also require counties to contract out any road job over $100,000 with limited exceptions.

One man told me this weekend, “There are not too many road jobs under $100,000.”

For many years counties reached across borders to help save tax dollars on road work. Working together to get the job done makes sense; it also makes dollars and cents.

Talking with local people I pieced together a picture of local governments cooperating to share equipment, resources and expertise. Jackson and Clark share a highway commissioner. They also share equipment. Chippewa has a ‘hot mix’ plant and sells to Eau Claire. Trempealeau runs a plant and sells to Monroe, Buffalo, Black River Falls, Jackson and sometimes La Crosse. Pierce County sells to local municipalities. Pierce does spraying along the roadways for St. Croix and Pepin. St. Croix hires Pierce for street sweeping. Pepin purchases used guard rails from Pierce. Pierce purchases ‘spray patch oil’ from St. Croix. Vernon has center line paint spraying equipment they share with others.

“Sharing equipment and work forces saves money for taxpayers,” said a local highway commissioner. “The budget provision takes all of this away.”

“This is stupid,” said Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) in a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article. “The only ones who seem to benefit are the road builders.”

While the co-author of the provision, Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, defended the move in the same article saying this is really about “private sector job creation.”

The cost of this “job creation” comes on the backs of taxpayers and local workers who may lose their jobs. Citizens may see worse roads and may have to wait longer to be plowed out in the winter.

Highway commissioners staff the local highway department so the work gets done. The most intense work is done in the winter removing snow. Storms don’t know boundaries. Counties work hard to remove snow quickly. They often drive down town roads or help out cities and villages.

Summer jobs keep the crews and equipment working. Local workers help out on state jobs. Plows double as dump trucks. Much highway equipment can be used year round.

Counties will now be limited in the summer work they can do. Add in deep cuts the budget imposes on local government. Counties will not be able to deliver the same level of services we have come to expect.

At least one county is talking of eliminating maintenance of the state highway system including snow and ice removal. Other highway commissioners tell me without the summer work to absorb the costs of maintaining equipment and workforce winter maintenance costs will go ‘through the roof’.

Some citizens told me all road work including snow removal should be done by private contractors. But this comes at a cost - in both dollars and quality. Private companies operate for profit.

In this budget there are moves to privatize public education, county social work, public internet services (ending a twenty year UW partnership) and now, road work.

When government contracts are increased, costs increase and the need for oversight increases. Republican leaders recognized this and did increase the money sent to counties for road construction. Of course increased spending on roads draws money away from other vital services or debt payments.

This budget is about our plan for the future. We should encourage cooperation and consolidation between towns and cities and counties where it makes sense. We should keep the focus on public service. This is lost when government services are bid out in private contracts.

Future local leaders may be severely limited on services they can share to cut down costs. In a time when private and public leaders are focused on lowering costs and increasing efficiency it makes no sense to limit local options. We need to expand cooperative agreements not stifle them.