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Compromise reached on public and private road jobs

Paul Snyder
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For the time being, highway departments and private road builders agree counties should not perform any road or construction work that uses private money.

Instead of forcing county highway departments to competitively bid on projects with price tags of more than $25,000, the state budget agreement reached by a special legislative conference committee includes the stipulation about county work.

“It’s a very, very satisfactory compromise,” said Door County Administrator Michael Serpe. “Private work is something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place.”

Serpe last week blasted the Senate’s version of the budget which contained the bidding provision, saying it could run highway departments out of business and cost them basic work such as snow removal.

But private firms and road building associations argued county highway departments have encroached on private work for years and take highway projects for themselves without going through the bidding process.

The county’s ability to take work, even if at a higher price than a private firm can offer, handcuffs private workers, said Ted Berdmann of Waupaca-based T & C Pavement Maintenance Inc.

“If these guys can do it cheaper and faster, OK,” he said. “But if not, counties are double dipping. Their machinery is already paid for with taxpayer money, and now they might be costing the taxpayers more on projects.”

Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said the compromise reached by the conference committee is satisfactory.

“It’s great to resolve an issue that’s been burning for years,” he said. “If an elephant’s in the room and nobody’s willing to talk about it, somebody’s finally got to say, ‘Look, there’s the elephant.’”

But beyond locking counties out of private jobs, the agreement also calls for a meeting this fall between county highway commissioners and road building associations to iron out any remaining qualms about securing jobs.

Although Door County does not work on jobs that involve private money, Serpe said other counties in Wisconsin do.

Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, said the meetings should provide a good opportunity to strengthen strained relationships between the two parties.

“I think in the end it could clear up what’s been, for a long time, a gray area,” he said. “I think the budget compromise, given the situation they (the Legislative committee) had, is positive. They found good common ground.”

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