Oneida County voters are set to pass judgment on a pair of county referenda questions Tuesday, one to raise taxes by $500,000 a year for a decade to pay for county road and bridge construction and another whether to suggest the county cut $500,000 a year in spending, with the savings also going for road and bridge construction.
The tax increase referendum is binding, meaning the county must raise taxes if the voters approve; but the county board does not have to follow the results of the non-binding question on spending cuts.
At a recent county board meeting, supervisor Scott Holewinski, a major supporter of the two referenda questions, said funding for county roads has been lagging badly, despite the county’s excessive spending in recent years to expand other programs, services, and staffing.
“But we never increased road budget money,” Holewinski said in January. “It cost us $76,000 a mile for roads back in 2005 and we were on a 15-year rotation. Today we are at $200,000 a mile and we are on a 45-year rotation, and roads don’t last that long.”
Holewinski said the county needs $1.6 million a year to be on a 25-year rotation. To get there, he said, the highway department budgets about $350,000 to $400,000 a year, and the county has added about $250,000 a year from the general fund — far short of what’s needed.
“We need $1.6 million,” he said. “We can’t ignore it anymore. We need the money, so we are asking voters for $500,000 to be put on the levy for 10 years directly for road construction, and then ask voters to approve reducing programs and services by $500,000 to apply to road construction.”
Holewinski says the money for the roads is needed, and passing both referenda questions is the best available way to both achieve that goal and protect taxpayers.
“They wanted a million-dollar tax increase, but we got it down to $500,000, with $500,000 in spending cuts,” he told The Times this week. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Holewinski also predicted that, if the referenda fail, taxpayers will end up paying more.
“If they don’t get the tax increase, they are going to borrow it,” he said. “They’ll borrow it, and then taxpayers will pay interest on it.”
Holewinski said he would not support borrowing.

Lakeland area views
Supervisor Billy Fried says the referenda questions are premature, and the county has not considered all its options, some of which he says might end up being a better deal for taxpayers. He also believes the solutions offered up by the referenda amount to more of a Band-Aid than anything else.
“I believe we all agree the highway department needs more funding to do their job, but let’s do it correctly,” Fried told The Times this week. “I believe there are many ideas that needed to be vetted before going to the taxpayers with referendums that are confusing or at the best a short-term fix.”
For one thing, Fried says, the county’s general fund is adequate to pay road costs temporarily while the county figures out the best way to proceed.
“In the short term our general fund can take a million-dollar hit to keep them moving forward,” he said. “There are other ideas that may be a better strategy for all.”
Then, too, Fried says passing the tax increase might not accomplish what officials think it will. In other words, the $500,000 annual increase ends after 10 years, and Fried wonders if it will be enough to close the highway funding gap, especially if supervisors don’t cut spending.
Fried says he would rather the county fashion a long-term solution that brings roads up to speed in the best possible way for taxpayers. One option to be vetted, he says, is the possibility of a half-cent sales tax to fund roads. 
Gov. Tony Evers has proposed allowing counties to add such a sales tax, which itself would require voter approval, though it seems destined to die in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
But Fried says bonding is another a serious option to consider, with rates as low as .76 to 1.5%, or 2.5% if borrowed from the state. Payments could come out of the general fund excess, with no tax levy increase, Fried says, and bonding would allow the county to catch up in road maintenance with an accelerated schedule.
The Minocqua supervisor also says the county should wait and hear the perspective of its newly hired highway commissioner, Alex Hegeman, whom the county board formally appointed March 16 to replace the retiring highway commissioner, Bruce Stefonek.
In addition, Fried wants voters to know that a tax increase would not pay for Hwy. 51 and Hwy. 70 improvements, and he’s worried that residents are confused about that.
“I also believe the people will … possibly think that funding the county highways will improve Hwy. 51 and Hwy. 70, which are state highways and not impacted by the county funding,” he said. “Hwy. 51 and Hwy. 70 have been grossly neglected in my opinion, and I believe there will be a number of voters who will think funding will be directed to these highways.”
Finally, Fried says, there is the question of fairness. The Minocqua area pays nearly 25% of the county tax levy and a good portion of the sales tax revenue, he says, yet Minocqua has maybe three-tenths of a mile of county highways in the town, he says.
Down in Hazelhurst, supervisor Ted Cushing is supporting the referenda, not least because he says borrowing is a bad idea that will ultimately punish taxpayers.
“The (highway) committee has gone through every possible way of getting more money,” Cushing said in January. “And as for borrowing, once you start borrowing there’s never going to be an end to it.”

Where to cut
As for the spending cut referendum question, Oneida County has a track record of refusing to cut spending, leaving intact an array of programs and services that are not mandated and rank low in the county’s own efficiency studies. 
The largest of those is the UW-Extension, which takes almost $200,000 a year, or nearly 40% of what the county would need to cut if the spending referenda passes.
For his part, Holewinski has maintained that the county has overtaxed citizens for years — ever since the county finished paying off debt for the construction of its law enforcement center in the mid 2000s — to pay for those programs.
Holewinski says the law enforcement center’s $2 million debt service stayed on the tax roll after the debt was paid — it was $1 million toward the end of the debt service cycle — which the Sugar Camp supervisor says the county used to expand programs, services, and staffing, but not road construction. Now, with revenues tightening, Holewinski told The Times this week, the time has come to actually cut nonessential programs and services.
“Revenues and expenditures have a big impact on excess cash for capital improvement projects,” he said. “We are down from 100 state inmates to 65. Forest revenue is down. There’s lots to consider, but every service we keep today will only increase that much more moving forward. Everyone thinks government can just keep supplying services and money without considering the long-term impact to future generations as far as how much government they can afford.”
As of this week, Oneida County chief deputy Dan Hess says the county has 68 state inmates, plus 16 inmates who are sentenced to prison that the state is paying for. Those numbers are in fact lower than in the past, Hess said, though he said future numbers are impossible to predict.
Hess said this year’s budget would hold.
That’s the revenue side, but on the spending side Holewinski believes supervisors can easily find $500,000 to cut if the referendum passes.
“The liberals on the non-partisan county board wanted me to spell those out,” he said. “I’m one guy with ideas, but I’m sure I can easily find $500,000 to cut.”
The UW Extension, at nearly $200,000 a year, was an obvious one, though Holewinski would save teen court and 4-H as separate programs. Still, he says, the overall program is costly and there are indirect as well as direct costs.
“Not only is there the cost of their contract, but there is also the support staff, rent at Nicolet College, which is in the buildings and grounds budget,” he said. “(There are) committee costs and indirect costs like corporate counsel, IT, finance, and Human Resources.”
In other areas, Holewinski has mentioned the sheriff’s department’s dive team as a place to possibly cut. According to county finance director Darcy Smith, the 2021 expenditure budget for the dive team is $31,307, reduced by donations and other revenue of $8,400, for tax levy funding of $22,907. 
However, Hess says the dive team has value for the county.
“Our dive team has not saved anyone since its inception, however, it does do an excellent job in humanely getting the loved one’s body back to the family,” he said. “This is typically completed in a short period of time, so the family can start their grieving process. Prior to the dive team’s inception, the sheriff’s office would drag with large hooks through the area and most times have to wait for the body to float. That would sometimes take several weeks for the location of the body. This was a very archaic process.”
In other areas, Holewinski has questioned the county’s membership in the North Central Regional Planning Commission (NCRPC), as well as budget support for maintenance of silent sports clubs to do ski trails. Membership in the North Central Regional Planning Commission cost $43,000 in 2020 and is budgeted at $42,500 for 2021.
“The bottom line is, government should not compete to supply those duplicate services that private business can do cheaper,” he said. “Government can only do things cheaper with flawed bookkeeping numbers. People need to take into account we are still paying for a jail by hiding that from the taxpayers for the past 13 years.”

Sorensen takes on UW-Extension, NCRPC
Supervisor Jack Sorensen — who supported eliminating UW Extension in the last budget go-round but was unsuccessful — has questioned the non-binding nature of the spending reduction referendum, saying he wonders whether the county will actually follow through and make the cuts if it passes.
“Why haven’t we cut $500,000 from the existing budget?” he asked at the January county board meeting. “Some of us tried last time around and got our fingers slapped because nobody wants to cut any existing program. If we pass this non-binding referendum (on spending cuts), how many of us have the guts to go ahead and make those cuts? If there are a half-million in cuts out there right now, why haven’t we done it?”
Sorensen did say one legitimate argument for going to referendum was to let the people decide.
“I’m looking forward to the people saying no to this (the tax raise) and then telling the county board on the advisory question to find the half million and cut it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that and then watching some of us squirm a little bit looking for alternatives.”
Echoing Holewinski, Sorensen has also been a frequent critic of the UW Extension funding, especially because he believes it’s a duplication of services.
“Why do we have the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation?” Sorensen asked during last year’s budget debate. “Because they provide a specific and important service. Why do we have Nicolet College? After all, UW Extension is providing all this education for us. Why do we have the tourism council? (The UW-Extension’s) Myles Alexander is providing all this information for them. Why do we have the nutrition programs within (the county)? UW-Extension is providing all this stuff for us. Why do we have the land records and all the mapping with some of these abilities we have given them? Supposedly, from UW Extension, but that mapping stuff came from Madison.”
In fact, Sorensen argued then, UW Extension was doing nothing but piggybacking on things the county had already paid for. 
“We’ve got to cut some place, and in my opinion that’s one of the prime places,” he said.
Sorensen has also questioned the county’s membership in the forestry association and in the North Central Regional Planning Commission. Sorensen is a former gubernatorial appointee to the latter commission.
“Several years ago, the governor appointed me to the North Central Regional Planning Commission,” he said in a discussion about the NCRPC in September of 2018. “It lasted about four meetings. I came to the conclusion that they were in direct competition with free enterprise, private engineering companies, only they were government subsidized. So I bailed and that was my perspective on it.”
By paying membership fees, Sorensen said, the county is subsidizing the commission’s competition against private enterprise. 
“We pay the planning commission $50,000, plus or minus, every year,” he said. “In some cases they provide a product to the county, but when we did redistricting, on top of the $50,000, they charged us another $50,000 to do the redistricting. So it is government subsidized.”
Sorensen has also questioned membership in the Wisconsin County Forests Association, which cost $5,746.99 in 2020.
Sorensen also said there were other revenues the county could find.
“You’ve got a ton of ore sitting out there in the town of Lynne,” he said. “What kind of revenue would that generate for Oneida County? But the people of Oneida County said they don’t want to do that. OK, but we’re sitting on a whole lot of money in the town of Lynne that could come right in to the general fund.”

Other criticisms
During debate on the spending cut referenda in January, some supervisors criticized the proposal because it lacked specificity. Supervisor Jim Winkler, for example, said he had been contacted by people wanting to know exactly what would be cut.
Supervisor Alan VanRaalte also said he would have liked the question to be more specific.
“I would prefer it to say that the county is looking to cut this, this, this, and that,” he said. “I could support this referendum, but I have constituents coming to me and saying, ‘OK, tell me what you are thinking about cutting, so I can make an informed decision.’”
VanRaalte said the county should have come up with a specific delineated list of proposed program and services cuts, with costs and savings included.
“I can’t support the resolution and quite frankly I don’t think my constituents will, either, but we’ll send it to them and find out.”
In a statement to the county, supervisor Bob Mott said he opposed the spending cut resolution because it usurped the established budget process.
“It is the role of the elected supervisor with public input to set the budget,” Mott said. “If the public disagrees there is ample time to comment. This is not a process to put to referendum.”
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.