Members of the North Central Labor Coalition (NCLC) are planning to approach the Oneida County Board of Supervisors with their concerns over an agreement between the county and the Rhinelander Area Silent Trails Association (RASTA) regarding grooming duties for the Washburn Lake Trail, Cassian Two-Way Trail, and Nose Lake Ski Trails beginning this winter.
The county board voted in August to approve a proposal put forward by the forestry, land, and recreation committee to allow RASTA to maintain the trails.
The NCLC, which was formed about two years ago, is a group of organizations, unions, retired individuals, and other concerned citizens.
“We represent workers around Oneida County, Vilas County, and the general vicinity – schools, highways, and that sort of thing – and we’ve been doing this for quite awhile,” NCLC member John Spiegelhoff said. He is the staff representative of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public services employees union.
“We decided it would be a good idea to get together and join forces to stick up for working people. That’s the general premise of what we do at the North Central Labor Coalition.”
NCLC member Fred Andrist, director of Northern Tier Uniserv which represents Rhinelander teachers, said the coalition is not intending to attack RASTA but is concerned about the process the county board followed in approving the proposal.
“This isn’t about RASTA or any of the members that are in it,” Andrist said. “We’d be taking the same position if any group would’ve approached the county board and the county board acted in the manner that they have. It’s about the action the county board took and how they took it. Our main concerns revolve around how it was done and the lack of questioning at the county board level. In our mind, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”
The NCLC said it has multiple concerns about the agreement between the county and RASTA, the most pressing being what they see as a harmful trend of privatizing public services.
Often done with the intent of saving money, Spiegelhoff said privatization of services rarely results in the savings that are promised.
“We’re seeing a lot of this full steam ahead towards privatization,” Spiegelhoff said.
“It’s always under the auspices that it’s going to save money. You always hear that. Well, usually, privatization doesn’t [save money]. Most of the time we find that any initial savings are, later on, they hijack the person paying the bills and say, ‘we can’t do it for what we promised, we’ve got to have a little more to do it,’ and that’s one of our key concerns about the rationale of this RASTA agreement. It may seem little, but it isn’t a little thing, at least in our opinion.”
The county has said it will save a little over $41,000 by eliminating one full-time employee and one limited-term employee who worked on grooming and maintaining the trail system.
The county board is expected to finalize the layoffs of the two employees at its November budget meeting.
In a press release, the NCLC said the savings from the layoffs can easily be undone by unemployment payments.
“As a result of the layoffs, the county will be on the hook to pay thousands of dollars of unemployment compensation to hard-working and experienced employees who will now lose their jobs,” the release said.
“The reality of it is this – our community needs more and better jobs, it doesn’t need less jobs,” added NCLC member Dennis O’Brien, a former employee of AFSCME. “Essentially, what the county board has done is made a decision to eliminate a position from the county for a very, very minor effect on the county’s budget.”
Andrist concurred, arguing the county board needs to look at the big picture.
“We need to look at savings from a long-term standpoint,” Andrist said. “Even if there’s immediate savings, is there going to be savings in the long run? Doing business on a year-to-year basis I don’t think is productive for any entity. The county needs to look at it from a long-term perspective.”
In addition to his other arguments, Spiegelhoff said privatization also takes away a citizen’s voice in the management of the service.
“We believe that public services are hugely important to our community and the privatization of public services, generally, is a really, really poor idea,” Spiegelhoff said. “Say, if you’re a citizen and the county provides a service and it’s privatized, and then, as a constituent, you want to say, ‘I don’t like what’s going on with X in the county or the school district,’ who are you going to talk to? I can’t unelect anybody because they’re a CEO or they’re a non-elected official, so I can’t vote them out of office if I’m unsatisfied with what they’re doing, so what’s my recourse? I don’t have any. There’s no representation at all.”
“We’ll have no accountability about how our trails are maintained,” he said.
Another concern brought up by the NCLC members is that no other entities were asked about doing the grooming.
“One of the most concerning things was there were no bids. No bids,” Spiegelhoff said. “That’s like if I wanted a plumber, I’m going to ask a bunch of them to give me a bid because I want the best bid. That never happened here. That is absolutely abhorrent, and I don’t use that word lightly, it’s abhorrent that a public agency would just take the first proposal put in front of them.”
County officials’ views
County board chairman Ted Cushing said the county and RASTA have a long-standing relationship regarding trail grooming and this seemed like a good time to take that relationship a step further.
“(RASTA) has been the most vocal and involved group in Oneida County all along in terms of silent sports,” Cushing said. “They’ve donated labor, they’ve donated money to maintain trails and improve trails, the silent sport trails.”
Forestry committee chairman Gary Baier agreed, though he said the committee should listen if others have concerns about the agreement.
“RASTA is the one that came forward with a good proposal,” Baier said. “I haven’t heard about any concerns but if they are out there, we should put it on the agenda and talk about it.”
Cushing noted that the county works with area snowmobile clubs on trail grooming and those clubs have been vocal in the past about RASTA doing more in terms of grooming.
“Their group takes a lot of heat from the snowmobile people because of all the time and donations and effort they put in grooming their trails and they were asking why [RASTA] isn’t more involved,” Cushing said.
Also on NCLC’s list of concerns are questions of liability.
O’Brien shared an example of a man who was volunteering to help Vilas County put on a fireworks display. Something went wrong during the display and the man ended up losing his hand.
Initially, the county insurance agency told the man that because he was a volunteer, they were not liable. The man sued and ended up winning.
Given that precedent, O’Brien wants to know what kind of liability the county will be facing with the RASTA workers.
According to Oneida County Corporation Counsel Brian Desmond, the county has required RASTA get insurance for its volunteers so that the county will not be liable for any mishaps.
NCLC is also concerned about what would happen if RASTA decides it no longer wants to do the job? Or, in an even worse scenario, what happens if RASTA can’t perform the task up to county standards?
“Presently, the guys that do the work are well-trained, they’re experienced, they know what they’re doing, it’s been their job,” O’Brien said. “The people that are taking over as volunteers are not necessarily in that same category. If there’s a 20-inch snowfall like there was last spring and the guys who are now responsible are used to dealing with four inches and they ... don’t have the experience to make it work, what happens then?”
The question is an important one, O’Brien said, because the trails are incredibly important to winter tourism in the county.
“Good ski trails are too important to our tourism industry to entrust to an unproven and unaccountable group — no matter how well-intentioned that group might be,” O’Brien said.
Confidence in RASTA
When the issue was before the board in August, forestry director John Bilogan was confident RASTA would be able to complete the job up to standards.
“That’s always a legitimate concern, although this group is approaching it as they would actually be hiring individuals to do the grooming which would be the lion’s share of the work,” Bilogan said. “I certainly believe the group, as the volunteer end goes, they’d also be performing work out on our trails free of charge so that would be taking place as well. There’s no guarantee other than I’ve been involved with this group for about eight years now and in eight years, if anything, their level of enthusiasm and overall interest in the trail systems that we have has increased steadily over that time. I don’t foresee it falling apart.”
RASTA board member Guy Hansen is certain his group of volunteers will be able to handle whatever Mother Nature throws its way.
“I have no doubts that we’ll be able to handle the task,” Hansen said in August. “We have a lot of hard-working, dedicated people ready to do their part to keep our trail systems beautiful. We’ll be training our people and getting them ready and it’ll take some time for everyone to get the routine down but I know we’ll be just fine.”
The county does have an out if it’s not satisfied with RASTA’s work. As supervisor Bob Martini noted in August, the agreement between the club and the county is for only one year.
“It’s only a one-year contract so if a review is done in March, we should have plenty of time to transfer it back to Oneida County before the snow season," Martini said.
The NCLC plans to be in direct communication with board members to express their concerns and it plans to have a presence at the November board meeting to state its case.
Marcus Nesemann may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.