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On the roads again: Counties want work beyond borders

By Adam Wise

Traffic travels Monday along a nearly completed stretch of the County Highway ZZ project in Cudahy. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, is proposing a bill that would allow counties to work on improvement projects and share equipment with other counties. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

There is an argument, backed by a bill, that county highway departments can save taxpayer money if the law lets crews pick up road improvement work beyond their borders.

But there’s no proof.

Daniel Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, is trying to remedy that by surveying all county highway commissioners.

He wants to know how often county crews worked outside their borders before Nov. 1, which was when state law changed to prohibit such work.

Fedderly said he wanted to nail down some numbers to show the savings of using county crews over private contractors for road improvement projects in other counties.

“If I were able to say intergovernmental cooperation saved taxpayers $50 million a year, I would say that,” he said. “But some years you would find that counties did a fair amount of work with an adjoining county, and maybe the next year they didn’t do any.”

Still, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, is proceeding with her legislation. She has proposed repealing the law, enacted in the 2011-13 state budget, that prohibits counties from working on those improvement projects and from sharing their equipment with other counties.

Prohibiting counties from performing improvement projects in other parts of the state was needed because those crews were winning public jobs without going through the standard bid process, said Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association.

“What we were trying to stop is county highway departments, a few of them, from going around the state acting like they are a private contractor being handed work,” he said.

The ban only applies to improvement projects. Counties still can work together on maintenance jobs.

There was value to the system before the ban, Fedderly said. Counties, for instance, could save on buying certain types of equipment because they could hire another county to do the work.

“One that comes up on a regular basis is paint striper,” Fedderly said. “It makes good sense that not every county in the state should own a paint striper. But if a few own paint stripers, it can be a benefit to the taxpayer.”

Private contractors have paint stripers too. Scott Piefer, vice president of Waukesha-based Zenith Tech Inc., said crews from other counties could undercut private contractors on jobs because those crews were backed by taxpayer money.

“We don’t have the ability to tax and just say, ‘It’s part of our budget,’” he said. “We don’t think it’s a fair and level playing field when competing against a government entity.”

For instance, Goss said, the Outagamie County Highway Department completed projects in eight counties other than its own from 2010 to spring 2011.

“Why is it in the taxpayers’ best interest to be subsidizing this entity?” Goss said.

The reason, Door County Highway Commissioner John Kolodziej said, is because the improvement project work completed in the summer pays for the equipment and manpower in winter when the county’s most critical job of plowing roads takes over.

“If we don’t have a way of collecting revenue during the construction season,” he said, “the cost for snow and ice control goes way up, and we lose our ability to fund the equipment and the people we need in the wintertime.”

Private contractors might argue counties had an unfair advantage under the old system, Fedderly said, but they miss the entire point of the system.

“That whole discussion is misplaced,” he said. “Our goal, nor the private sector’s goal, should not be based on or predicated by who is doing the work.

“Our collective goal is providing the best work at the best cost for our taxpayers.”

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