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‘Financially, it doesn’t make sense’

December 31, 2019 by Brian Jopek

For some time now, equipment and personnel sharing between Vilas County departments such as its highway and forestry departments has been a topic of discussion. 

The topic came up again Dec. 17 during a joint session of committee members for both departments.

Forestry committee chairman Steve Doyen said the issue came up during that committee’s most recent meeting on Dec. 3. 

Equipment sharing between the two counties wasn’t listed as an agenda item for that meeting; it was, however, discussed as the committee addressed an agenda item regarding contracts for side brushing. 

“This has kind of been a pet peeve of mine since I first got on the board back in 2000,” Doyen said. “We always had to subsidize one department for another department when they’d have to do something that’s all county. I just wanted to bring it forward and see if there’s something we can’t do to make this work.”

Highway committee chairman Charles Rayala indicated he didn’t have a problem with one department lending equipment that wasn’t being used at the time to another. 

Vilas County highway commissioner Nick Scholtes said, though, what he believed Doyen was actually talking about was the highway department charging other county departments. 

“Under the highway department structure, we’re an enterprise fund,” he said. “We charge everybody we do the work for ... including ourselves. We charge against the road and bridge fund. All work we do is billable someplace.”

Hilger explains it all

Scholtes said he believed Doyen was asking if there was a way to get around that procedure. 

He referred to Vilas County finance director Jason Hilger, sitting across the way.

“I don’t know of a way unless Jason knows of a way,” Scholtes said. 

Hilger said it wasn’t that what Doyen was asking about couldn’t be done. 

“The question is ‘Should you do what he’s asking?’” he said. “Financially, it doesn’t make sense and as Nick stated he is an enterprise fund. We hold him accountable to his budget.”

Hilger said it’s a little different from every department being in the county’s general fund and they all do work for each other.

He said Scholtes heads up a department with its own, separate fund. 

“It’d be no different than social services doing some case management work and not charging the state,” Hilger said. “Or, if we didn’t give them (tax) levy, how would they get funding for it?”

He said he believed it’s something that could be worked out between departments if it were an occasional occurrence. 

Hilger used towns being billed by the county as an example. 

“But, following the state billing system, you have to bill the towns in the road and bridge fund with the same rate,” he said. “Can you make an exception here and there? I suppose, but that’s why we do what we do.”

Doyen said his concern was the equipment in question is all Vilas County property.

“This is all county equipment,” he said. “Why is it segregated so that another unit of the (county) government, the same government, can’t utilize it?”

Hilger explained, and he referenced state manuals and processes, that all county highway departments operate with an enterprise fund. 

“Which means it’s a business fund,” he said. “So, they’re set up on a cost recovery method. All the machinery they have working, they need to charge that out because we don’t give them levy for that.”

Hilger used as an example the forestry department needing to use highway department equipment and personnel for some substantial forestry department work. 

“They have no funding source for that,” he said. “Whether we give them levy or they charge another fund is kind of the same thing, but we’re not giving it to him (Scholtes) yet.”

Hilger said it might be a different story if items were budgeted differently.

For that, he used an example of giving Scholtes and the highway department $20,000 worth of work for the sheriff’s office, forestry department or the finance department.

Hilger went with the example of the highway department plowing around the courthouse in Eagle River for that, something currently not done. 

“Now, it’s taking man hours and machine hours away from his financial plan,” he said. “He (Scholtes) needs to be paid by somebody or at the end of the day, he’s not gonna have money for payroll, for fuel, for tires, for insurance. So, it’s a whole different budgeting process.”

Hilger said if it was ultimately decided to throw Scholtes “a bone” and budget — or pre-pay the highway department — the $20,000 to have its personnel and equipment do things like plow around the courthouse during the winter months or do work for the forestry department and keep track of it, that would be possible. 

“But, up to this point, for as long as I know of, we’ve never given the money to do it so therefore to ask them to do it would create a budget issue with them,” he said.

Hilger clarified for Doyen the highway department isn’t given tax levy dollars for unbudgeted work. 

He said the county gives the highway department through the budget process approximately $450,000.

“There’s about $100,000 to cover some overhead that’s not billable, like mixed time and administrative time,” Hilger said, adding in the 2020 budget, there’s $250,000 for equipment, a reduction from $350,000.

“So, do we give some (tax levy) money, Steve?” Hilger asked. “Yes, we do. That’s why I’m saying could you make some special arrangement for limited amounts of effort, I suppose. The biggest thing is we don’t charge the state and towns different rates.”

‘No common sense’

Vilas County board chairman Ron DeBruyne, also chairman of the county board’s finance and public property committees and silent to this point, spoke up. 

“Well, I understand there’s no common sense in government,” he said. “That’s why we’re sitting here discussing this because common sense is not part of this discussion.”

DeBruyne asked why Vilas County taxpayers would pay the highway department more than a local, private contractor. 

“There’s no common sense to it,” he said. “And Steve has kind of been taking the brunt of this, but this discussion was very heated at the (Dec. 3 meeting of the) forestry committee and I was part of the heat. I think it’s stupid.”

Hilger once again alluded to occasional use type situations.

“I think the department heads could probably work it out,” he said. “Can you use it for free? Maybe not. Can there be a discount to it? I think so.”

Hilger said a motion could be made along the lines of directing department heads to work out a reasonable rate.

“Or we want the state rate to be discounted by 50% per town board,” he said. “Or a number. Again, I think it would be different if you say ‘I need four highway guys and  eight pieces of equipment all fall or all summer. I think then we’d have to look at that. Does it make sense? Or would we have to subsidize them more than we currently do?”

Forestry department head Al Murray asked about the possibility of establishing an internal rate for departments to use. 

“I think you can,” Hilger said. “I don’t think the state is gonna reprimand us for that.”

“That’s where we go over the edge on costs you’re talking about with the operators and equipment,” Murray said.

Before the discussion was over, DeBruyne made a final comment, saying he was glad it was taking place. 

“I know you guys are getting tired of hearing about it,” he said. “But in all my years on the county board, this subject has come up many, many times.”

DeBruyne said there were two reasons a private contractor handles the snow plowing around the county courthouse, the first being highway department personnel and equipment are out taking care of the county roads and highways. 

He said there’s also a financial advantage in “going outside our own agencies to get the work done.”

“That has always fascinated me,” DeBruyne said. 

There was no decision made at the end of that Dec. 17 discussion but last week, DeBruyne told The Lakeland Times his understanding was Scholtes and Murray would be taking about what could be done with respect to equipment sharing within financial parameters. 

“I have faith in both Al and Nick,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll discuss it and find a way for Vilas County to use the equipment that we have efficiently.”

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected]

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