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Thompson, counties reach agreement

October 4, 1999Gov. Tommy G. Thompson has reached an agreement with organizations in Dane County that will replace its regional planning commission in three years, an action that planners hope will resolve a long-running dispute between government officials. “It is an imperfect but workable compromise that is far better than the alternative” of not having any commission, said Topf Wells, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Kathleen M. Falk. “We think that the agreement has some strong pluses to it and is a lot better than the chaos we think would result from dissolution.”Under an agreement announced Thursday, an interim regional planning commission will function until Oct. 1, 2002. The commission will take aboard additional personnel and responsibilities at the same time.“The governor feels strongly that if Wisconsin is to continue to grow, which it is, that we need to do so responsibly,” said Thompson’s press secretary, Darrin Schmitz. “He wants land use decisions to be based on local ideas and input. This agreement merges the Dane County Planning Office with the RPC to keep those issues on the local level and streamline some things that may have been overlapping in the past.The plan, endorsed by Thompson, Falk and Dane County Towns Association President Gerald Derr, also calls for an interim 13-member board with four members appointed by the City of Madison, three by towns and three by cities and villages. The Dane County executive will appoint the remaining three by selecting one person from each of the three other groups. In addition, there can only be as many as three Dane County supervisors. Eight votes will be needed to approve changes to the urban service area, which affects issues such as utility service, and the county’s land use and transportation plan.From our perspective, this may be the best compromise that could be reached,” said Larry Saeger, city administrator for Verona. “Given that status quo wouldn’t be possible, and dissolution could be worse, this may be the best for smaller communities.”The commission, which represents 60 local units of government, has 11 members: three Dane County board members from Madison and two outside it, all of which are appointed by the City of Madison, one from smaller cities, one by villages and two by towns. Thompson, meanwhile, will create a 15-member task force to make recommendations for the creation of a multi-county commission that will start in 2002. The action is meant to resolve a dispute between planning officials that became a public controversy earlier this year. In his 1999-2001 state budget, Thompson wanted to abolish the Dane County Regional Planning Commission entirely. Thompson would have replaced commission members from lists created by elected officials of local governments and associations. Thompson had also called for the boards of Dane County and the surrounding counties that are not members of a regional planning commission to vote on participation in a multi-county planning group.The new agreement will preserve the planning commission’s responsibilities until the new organization is created. In addition to typical duties, the Dane County Regional Planning Commission is also the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which makes it responsible for federal transportation projects as well.Losing that function concerned the City of Madison, which worried that the focus of its transport planning and the resources it provides would be diverted away from the metropolitan area. In a letter to then-state Secretary of Administration Mark Bugher, Madison Mayor Susan J.M. Bauman said the city was prepared to form an alternative structure for the metropolitan planning organization.While those concerns are apparently addressed for the short term, Ryan Mulcahy, assistant to the mayor, said that Bauman would not comment about the new agreement. The Dane County Regional Planning Commission also is responsible for water quality initiatives. That responsibility would have shifted to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources if the commission had been dissolved. Some members of the planning authority were concerned that such a shift would give local officials less responsibility, meaning Dane County would have to compete within the department for services of other counties and their water-quality needs.The most important issue in creating the new commission will be representation, according to Wells and others. Since Dane County has the largest population and property values, it could dominate the board at the expense of smaller counties. But equal representation would mean that smaller groups would get a disproportionate share of the benefits. “The (interim) representation when balanced against the limit of the number of county board supervisors on there shows this is intended to be a model that encourages people to reach consensus on common land use and transportation issues,” Wells said. He added that the county will be monitoring the creation of the new commission to make sure the representation remains fair.The regional planning proposal will be included in the state budget, which as of Friday afternoon remained under discussion.

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