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Counties around the state bracing for tight road budgets

By: //July 6, 2010//

Counties around the state bracing for tight road budgets

By: //July 6, 2010//

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Traffic navigates barricades on University Avenue in Madison last year. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk is asking major governmental bodies -- including the highway department -- to trim five percent from the 2011 budget. (File photo by Henry A. Koshollek)
Traffic navigates barricades on University Avenue in Madison last year. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk last week asked county department leaders to trim five percent from their 2011 budgets. (File Photo by Henry A. Koshollek)

By Paul Snyder

Wisconsin county highway commissioners, lacking federal stimulus money and local revenue, are facing the likelihood of fewer projects in 2011.

“When county budgets are tight and they’re looking for ways to save money, it becomes easy to say, ‘Let’s just cut a highway project or two,'” said Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County Highway Commissioner.

Chippewa County has in design right now 36 highway projects, including intersection repairs and major bridge crossings. Stelzner said the estimated cost for all 36 projects is $22.5 million.

He said he expects financing to be available for only six to 10 of those projects.

“It’s going to be a matter of prioritizing and scrapping to find the money to do those projects,” he said. “And the big question is where to get that money.”

Many Wisconsin counties in 2009 and 2010 used federal stimulus money to finance projects that might otherwise have waited years, said Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association.

“But there are two separate avenues to consider with stimulus money,” he said. “On one hand, it was a phenomenal help in terms of getting improvement projects done that, under normal circumstances would have never been done in a timely manner.

“On the other hand, it didn’t help the problem of long-term stabilization of transportation budgets. It just staved off the problem for a year.”

With counties still pinched for cash and looking for ways to save money, Fedderly said, the problem will re-emerge this summer as departments make budget requests.

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, for example, last week asked county department leaders in their 2011 budget requests to either reduce spending or increase revenue by 5 percent.

Fedderly said there likely will be similar calls for cuts throughout the state.

“We’re right to the end of the rope now,” he said. “We can’t really talk about reallocation or shifting people to other departments. So now you’re looking at either cutting staff or trying to find new forms of revenue.”

St. Croix County in 2008 instituted a wheel tax, which shielded the county from many problems plaguing other highway departments, said Tim Ramberg, St. Croix County highway commissioner. The tax adds $10 to annual vehicle registration fees and generates more than $700,000 annually for the highway department.

“Could we get more? Yes,” Ramberg said. “Do we need more? Yes. But right now, I think it’s fine to look at what we do have and where it puts us compared to other counties. Our transportation committee has stated several times that it saved us.”

But Ramberg said the county’s proximity to Minnesota, where every county uses a wheel tax, likely made the idea more palatable to local voters than the tax would be to those in other parts of Wisconsin.

Fedderly agreed.

“Any time you start talking about new taxes, it’s an immediate local impact,” he said. “But it’s also a challenge to get the support for it.”

Instead, Fedderly said, most counties are starting to follow the state’s lead and discussing bonding for road projects.

Bonding is a way to get more money for roadwork, Stelzner said, but it carries its own set of problems.

“You can get the money you need,” he said, “but then again, now you’ve got to find the money to come back with repayment.”

Nevertheless, Chippewa County, which never used bonding for roadwork, is considering bonding in 2011, Stelzner said.

“It has to be on the table,” he said. “The county’s at a point where everything has to be on the table.”


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