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Overstimulated cities return road money

Dan Jacobson, an operator with LaLonde Contractors Inc., Milwaukee, makes a deposit into a dump truck driven by Jeff Nowak of JNL Trucking LLC, Mukwonago, in the 3500 block of Lisbon Avenue in Milwaukee. The work is part of a project using stimulus money to rebuild Lisbon Avenue (Photo by David La Haye)

Dan Jacobson, an operator with LaLonde Contractors Inc., Milwaukee, makes a deposit into a dump truck driven by Jeff Nowak of JNL Trucking LLC, Mukwonago, in the 3500 block of Lisbon Avenue in Milwaukee. The work is part of a project using stimulus money to rebuild Lisbon Avenue (Photo by David La Haye)

By Sean Ryan

Low bids for local road projects are reversing the flow of stimulus payments as cities and counties kick surplus federal money back to the state.

“I don’t know what they’re going to be doing with that money this year because I know that there are a lot of projects that are being underbid,” said Ken Ward, principal and office manager at Ruekert & Mielke Inc., Waukesha.

City and county officials are wondering what the extra money will be used for and if the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will direct all of the money toward state highways instead of local roads.

“I’m fully confident that the state will take all of it,” said Michael Lewis, West Allis city engineer.

Gary Sipsma, director of the Kenosha County division of highways, said he expects WisDOT to spend the savings on state highways instead of local roads. Kenosha County on April 27 received a $313,000 bid for a county highway project backed by $450,000 in stimulus money, he said.

In Kenosha County, Sipsma said, it’s not a big loss if money goes to state highways. WisDOT, he said, is preparing a repair project for Highway 50 in the county.

“Of course, we always have more work that we can do, more projects to get done,” he said. “But if, in fact, the state uses it on state Highway 50, that’s a benefit to the entire county.”

WisDOT, which only responded to requests for information with an e-mail attributed to spokeswoman Peg Schmitt, reported in the e-mail the department will spend stimulus savings on additional projects and on projects with cost overruns.

The city of West Bend received $1.5 million for six stimulus projects, but the bids for those projects amounted to only $893,000, said Fred Schaejbe, civil engineer with the city.

He said even if the state makes more money available for municipal projects, West Bend probably cannot engineer the projects in time to bid this year.

“Part of the problem is it takes a Herculean effort to get the designs out,” Schaejbe said.

Not everyone is returning the money to the state. The city and county of Milwaukee have state approval to keep the savings from some stimulus projects. The city and county received stimulus money set aside for projects in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee County bids were $2.1 million less than the estimates on the six projects for which the county received $8.5 million in stimulus grants, said Jack Takerian, county interim director of transportation and public works. WisDOT has signed off on the county spending that money to repave College Avenue in 2011, he said.

“I don’t look at it as us getting special treatment,” he said. “I look at it as staying within the allocation we received.”

The city of Milwaukee is combining $4 million in stimulus savings with other state money to do five extra projects, said Clark Wontach, Milwaukee Department of Public Works transportation manager.

The city is returning $850,000 in stimulus money to the state in savings on other projects, Wontach said. He said he hasn’t heard the state’s plan for the leftover stimulus but said the most important thing is to make sure Wisconsin does not have to return anything to the federal government.

“Statewide,” Wontach said, “we all want to make sure that all of that money is used here in the state.”

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