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Counties sidestep new road rule

Jesse Griffin of J & A Pohl Inc., Brookfield, spreads concrete while working on Highway ZZ Thursday in Cudahy. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By James Briggs

County officials on Thursday lauded lawmakers for killing a provision that would have forced counties to use private contractors for roadwork.

The state budget provision, which had been set to take effect next month, would have required counties contract out highway projects that cost $100,000 or more. Republicans had argued the rule would create jobs for road builders in the private sector.

In an about-face, though, Assembly Republicans early Thursday morning passed an amendment to the budget bill deleting the requirement. The Senate, which still was debating the budget at deadline Thursday afternoon, was expected to concur with the Assembly’s action.

Many county officials complained about the rule, saying it meant they would have to pay higher rates to private contractors for roadwork than they already pay staff members to do the same job.

“What it could have done is tie our hands even more than they already are today,” said Brian Field, highway department commissioner for Dodge County. “These are challenging times. Money is tight, our employee situation has changed significantly, the ability to attract and retain good employees is changing.

“The last thing we need is more restrictions on what we can and cannot do.”

Republicans added the provision to the budget through the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, but state Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, helped persuade colleagues to drop the provision as the result of feedback from counties.

Still, state Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade, said Republicans weren’t to blame for the controversy. Rather, he said, the counties’ own representation is at fault.

LeMahieu said the rule was drafted as the result of negotiations that included Mark O’Connell, Wisconsin Counties Association executive director.

“I realize because of all the concern now, he’s backtracking a bit, but he supported this bill,” LeMahieu said. “He helped negotiate it, so, as a county official, I think you need to be talking to your voice in Madison.

“If he let you down, I think that’s the person you should be talking to.”

O’Connell could not immediately be reached for comment.

John Reinemann, the legislative director for the counties association, said Thursday he had not read the Assembly amendment and could not discuss it.

“I had heard something of the sort might happen,” he said. “I ought to look at the summary before I say anything.”

Reinemann did not respond again Thursday afternoon.

Field, though, said he did not fault the counties association for trying to create a rule that would help some members.

“Not any two counties are the same, and maybe what’s good for one county is not good for the next,” he said. “Their intentions were good.”

Racine County, for example, already saves money by using private contractors for big road projects, county engineer Jeff Katz said.

“We have so much maintenance work, being an urbanized county,” he said, “that we don’t have the time or resources to do those capital projects.”

The majority of county representatives, though, told lawmakers the provision would eliminate their freedom to choose how best to approach roadwork, said state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.

“This is a case,” he said, “where you try to tell local officials, ‘We know best in Madison, and we’ll take care of everything for you. You don’t even have to think anymore.'”

Beyond the instances in which counties would have to pay more money for private contractors, Field said, year-round roadwork also lets counties maintain a large enough work force to plow snow in the winter.

Without $100,000-plus projects, Field said, Dodge County would have to lay off workers, which would “make it tricky to be there when they really need us.”

“If we cut our staffing anymore,” he said, “you’ll know it in January, and nobody will be happy about it.”

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