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Public works projects defy partnerships

Sean Ryan
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Milwaukee County communities keep tripping up on the specifics of partnerships for public works projects.

“On the surface, it may be workable,” said Richard Sokol, Greenfield director of neighborhood services. “But the devil is in the details.”

Money for road maintenance, construction, landscaping or plowing must pass through too many layers of government, Sokol said. Money from the state’s Community Development Block Grant, for example, takes a 50 percent cut when passing from county government to municipalities, he said.

Greenfield could take on additional responsibilities — such as taking over maintenance for county trunk highways or state roadways — but only if the money is there to pay for it, Sokol said.

“Does it make sense for the county tractor to be right in front of the Greenfield library cutting grass when Greenfield (Department of Public Works) is 300 feet away?” he said.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker on Monday floated the idea of county government giving up its responsibilities for county highways and giving its share of state transportation money to municipalities to do the job. The county could save money because it would no longer need public works employees, and it could let communities with engineers and crews on staff do the work, Walker said.

The county this month received $2.23 million in local road money from the state.

The Greater Milwaukee Committee, a nonprofit association of Milwaukee-area companies and groups, is studying Milwaukee County government services to see if it would be cheaper for municipalities to do the work, said President Julia Taylor. Eliminating county public works services — roadwork, plowing, parks maintenance — could be an opportunity for savings, she said.

“It’s important that we figure out how we can continue the quality of life that we want with these services,” she said, “and, at the same time, have them be cost-effective.”

Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue agreed it would be no problem taking over maintenance of county roads if the money is there, but the state continues trimming money for local roads. The state should create incentives for local governments to cooperate, he said.

“A government would be more than happy to give up a money-loser, but a money-gainer, they’re not going to want to give it up,” McCue said. “So if another government would want to come in and do our snowplowing for the city of Cudahy, by all means.”

Hales Corners could not accept the county’s offer because the village does not have enough people on staff to maintain the more than three miles of county highway in the village, said Michael Martin, the village’s director of public works. The city has four public works employees, and three of them are on-call volunteer firefighters who must abandon pothole-filling if there is a fire, he said.

The village wants to team with neighbors on contracts — such as for roadwork or buying toilet paper for public buildings —to get cheaper bid prices, Martin said.

Combining projects into one contract poses the administrative challenge of coordinating budgets and bid times between different governments, Martin said. But, for the small village of Hales Corners, the tough part is finding a way to entice larger communities into a partnership, he said.

“Let’s say we’d contract with a large municipality to do sewer cleaning,” Martin said. “What can we give them in return?”

Sokol said local governments are short on money, so it is a good time to look for savings through cooperation.

“It’s been talked about, and it’s been talked about for years,” Sokol said. “But nobody’s figured out a way to pull the trigger.”

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