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Counties may opt out of road contracts

By: Joe Yovino//December 24, 2009//

Counties may opt out of road contracts

By: Joe Yovino//December 24, 2009//

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By Sean Ryan

Outagamie County rejected the state’s 2010 contract offer for highway plowing and maintenance, and more counties may follow suit next year.

The proposed Wisconsin Department of Transportation contract would force the county to have 15 snowplows and up to 25 people on staff during winter, said Al Geurts, Outgamie County’s highway commissioner. But the contract would not offer enough construction work in the summer to keep those people working, he said.

The offer would require the county cover the summer expense of keeping the trucks and people busy, Geurts said.

“If the state doesn’t have funds to allow the county to do any work in the summer months,” he said, “it becomes a very lopsided arrangement.”

WisDOT signs annual contracts with county governments to work on state trunk highways. But the amount of money each county receives for annual contracts is dwindling, and highway commissioners face the prospect of cutting their work force and doing less plowing and maintenance work, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association Inc.

The state dedicated $149 million to pay for county work statewide in 2010, down from $152 million this year, according to an e-mail attributed to WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt.

Some counties, in their 2010 contracts with WisDOT, included a provision letting counties opt out of their 2011 contracts, Fedderly said. According to the provision, county commissioners have until July 1 to notify WisDOT they refuse to do the work in 2011.

Fedderly said it is unclear whether state law lets counties refuse to sign the state maintenance contracts, which is why the county association worked with WisDOT to draft opt-out provisions for the 2010 contracts.

Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County highway commissioner, said he expects counties to take advantage of the clause.

“The reality is that some of these counties will opt out of it,” said Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County highway commissioner, “and stop doing the work and leave it to the state.”

Stelzner, president of the county highway association, said he did not include the opt-out provision in Chippewa County’s 2010 contract even though the amount of money from the state is less than in 2009.

Stelzner’s department received more than $2.5 million for the work this year, but will get $2.2 million in 2010.

He will dedicate 15 county employees to work on state highways, one fewer than in 2009, resulting in slower and less frequent plowing, less mowing of highway shoulders and more potholes, Stelzner said.

“With the diminishing county budgets as well, the counties will not spend money in the state highway system,” he said. “So it will be up to the state to figure out how to pay for the state trunk highway system.”

Dwindling money for county contracts is becoming a bigger problem in Madison, Fedderly said. Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, on Dec. 18 introduced a bill that would help Milwaukee County request more money for its highway contract with the state.

“It’s unfortunate that it has to be done that way,” Fedderly said, “but it at least heightens the awareness.”

The lack of money for county contracts and major highway projects is leading road builders and county commissioners, who have a history of fighting for projects, into a lobbying alliance in Madison, said Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Within 60 days, he said, Wisconsin Way — a group of associations representing counties, municipalities, real estate agents and road builders — will roll out a package of ideas to raise more state road money.

“Toll roads, I think that has been seriously discussed,” O’Connell said, “and may well wind up in one of the recommendations.”

Geurts said the situation in Outagamie County will come to a head this spring. The county will continue to plow the roads for WisDOT this winter, he said. But if the state does not commit to enough summer construction work to keep crews busy in 2010 and 2011, he said, he will reduce the work force and leave it to WisDOT to figure out how to plow the roads next winter.


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