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Editorial: County residency rule a fool’s goal

Poblocki Paving Corp., won five projects that carried the requirement. He exceeded 50 percent on each of them. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Poblocki Paving Corp. owner John Poplocki won five projects that carried Milwaukee County’s residency requirement. He exceeded the 50 percent requirement on each of them. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee County has been playing John Poblocki for a fool.

The county requires contractors working on projects that use only county money devote 50 percent of the payroll on those jobs to employees who live in Milwaukee County. Since the county revived the requirement in 2010, some contractors, such as Poblocki, have worked diligently to meet the standard.

Others have not.

Between June 2011 and December 2012, Poblocki’s company, Poblocki Paving Corp., won five projects that carried the requirement. He exceeded 50 percent on each of them.

But it came at a cost.

He paid to train county residents. He bypassed more qualified candidates who live outside the county. He spent time filling out the hiring-requirement forms.

And he got suckered by Milwaukee County.

While he was meeting the goal, county government was ignoring it. During those months in 2011 and 2012, the county fell short. Between 33.7 percent and 47.1 percent of overall project payroll money went to residents.

The numbers come from a county auditor’s report, which could not nail down a specific percentage because the county did a poor job tracking the projects.

The report analyzed the success rate after the county had given itself a hammer to use on contractors that failed to meet the requirement. The county could withhold payment, cancel the contract or prohibit a company from bidding for as long as two years.

Of course, the report also revealed the county never penalized a company even though 18 failed to meet the requirement — or at least the county guesses it was 18. In effect, Poblocki suffered by complying.

But the requirement itself is as galling as the inept record keeping and absent enforcement. It is policymaking without proof, requiring just because it feels like the right thing to do.

It might be right, but no one has backed up the claim with numbers. The simplistic logic is that if 50 percent of the payroll money goes to county residents, then they benefit, as do county merchants, as do county tax revenues.

The politically distasteful (and thus rarely mentioned in debate) logic is that if the requirement forces all contractors to take the costly steps Poblocki did, then the county probably pays more for those projects.

County supervisors took the first step toward good policy by requesting the report. But they need to answer whether the benefits of the requirement outweigh its costs.

If they prove the requirement helps more than it hurts, then they should fix a system that, so far, has punished the wrong contractors by not only forcing them to spend more money but also making them look like fools for doing so.

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