It’s sometimes been a lonely highway he’s traveling, and he hasn’t yet succeeded, but Oneida County supervisor Robb Jensen has over the years kept on trucking toward his dream of a new highway department facility for the county, which he says is still under consideration.
And on this stretch of the journey, he’s been joined by a newly vocal ally, supervisor Jack Sorensen.
The two raised the issue — with Jensen promising a dialogue and saying he was gathering information for the public works committee to look at — at an Aug. 19 capital improvement program subcommittee meeting, during which supervisors reviewed departmental capital improvement requests for 2020.
A new highway department was not on the agenda. Nonetheless, a discussion came up as the subcommittee reviewed a capital request for $408,000 for a brine building at the current location.
The purpose of the brine building and storage is to house a high-capacity brine maker with enough room for 80,000 gallons of storage tanks and additional footage for loaders normally stored in the main building. Part of the building would be insulated and part would be cold storage.
However, while the department was seeking $408,000 in 2020, the total project cost was estimated to be $618,000 with 2024 projected as the year the building would be finished to increase brine storage volume.
Near the end of the discussion, supervisor Billy Fried asked why the county shouldn’t just do it all now.
“Why wouldn’t we shoot for insulating and just doing the building right, right away, or even make it bigger if it’s necessary because we’ve talked — going back to the old study, we decided not to build a new (highway) facility,” Fried said. “Why aren’t we protecting the equipment and the investments we’ve made?”
At that point, Sorensen shifted the discussion from the brine building to a discussion about a new highway department.
“Or at what point in time do we go back to the reality that everything we throw into that highway building is another band-aid,” Sorensen replied to Fried. “Now we’re talking another $400,000. As hard as that is, why aren’t we reconsidering a new highway building?”
Jensen said, “We are.” At that point, rather than defer a conversation about a new facility to another time, Jensen kept going.
“These issues have been coming up, and the chairperson (county board chairman Dave Hintz) said that the public works committee has to make the first recommendation on that,” he said. “There was an east side expansion, a west side expansion, we had a number for that, and then there was a new facility, as well as status quo.”
Jensen then began doing the math of the cost of the various options and said he and unnamed others were pondering where a new facility might go.
“So trying to save on consultants, …, let’s say east (expansion) was $2.4 million, and over the last three-and-a-half years, can you just multiply a 2% increase to get a rough number?” he asked. “What would be the west (expansion) and then what about revisiting the new facility. And with that, we’ve been trying to identify what might be (possible locations). We’ve looked at the bypass, but are there other some potential closer that have the infrastructure? So it is being looked at. We’re trying to put some things together for the (public works) committee to take a look at.”
Sorensen asked if the public works committee was taking into consideration the money the county was investing in the current facility.
“That’ll be part of it,” Jensen replied. “If we’re going to invest $1.5 million or whatever over the next four years, what does that mean? But as you know, it was an issue three-and-a-half years ago that people have their opinions on.”
Jensen said there was “a lot of pieces” to a new highway facility.
“Is the Kwik Trip offer still there?” he said. “We hear it’s still there and what does that mean, so the committee has to take a look at that. There were some things in that offer that might affect the city. But hopefully we can have the dialogue, come up with some numbers, and evaluate option A, B, C, D, and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. But if you’re looking at putting this building up, should you delay this a year?”
Sorensen did not engage that question but continued a discussion about a new facility, opining about the reasons the proposed Kwik Trip offer failed the last time around.
“It died in closed session because that committee did not have a counteroffer in place,” he said. “Suddenly the counteroffer was thrown out to the committee of the whole of 21 members, and 21 different opinions on how to counteroffer, and that’s when I said enough at this time.”
Jensen said that dialogue would be part of the current discussion, but he said he did not know where the conversation would ultimately go.
“We’re trying to come up with some numbers and look at some things and see what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense, but as you know moving to a new site does have some emotional issues attached to it,” he said.
Sorensen kept going. The same was the case when the law enforcement center was built, he said.
“It was an emotional issue with the sheriff’s department, but it came in ahead of schedule and under bid and we paid it off in 10 years,” he said.
Jensen said he heard what Sorensen was saying.
“There are some options here, and if we delayed it a year then it would give some time for that dialogue to occur,” he said.
There was no more discussion about a brine building, and the discussion about the need for a new highway facility ended, too, but only for short time. Jensen and Sorensen brought it up again when the committee reviewed a request for $103,000 to replace existing nonworking vehicle exhaust units, and to add carbon monoxide detectors, nitrogen oxide sensors, and a portable filter exhaust system to be used for welding operations, as well as to replace a damaged heating unit in the front of the shop.
The 2020 request was part of a $2-million multi-year proposal designed to ensure worker safety and bring the existing building up to code over a period of years through 2024, after Harwood Engineering did an analysis of the current facility. The engineering study urged the county to make the upgrades if the highway department was staying put.
Jensen said the proposal still didn’t answer Sorensen’s previous question: If you look at 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024, he asked, why is the county putting all that money into the current facility?
Sorensen picked up on the theme.
“Here you have another $2 million that we’re sticking into the existing facility to upgrade,” he said. “You keep adding all these numbers up. You keep throwing money into the existing facility and you’re still dealing with future money into the existing facility. At what point in time do you just say, ‘Enough. Let’s build new,’ and take your lumps. There’s not an easy answer, I realize.”
Sorensen said the county took a lot of flak for building the new law enforcement center, but the reality was it paid for itself long-term.
“We can continue, continue, continue to put money into the existing facility or we could have just lumped it into something new,” he said.
Jensen said there were a lot of factors at play the public works committee would be looking at. But, he said, when you look at the $2 million request and other things, such as the department’s need for larger quad trucks, Jensen said he would invite anybody to take a walk through the current facility and try to figure out how a quad truck could move in and out.
“It’s a highly emotional issue, and trying to set that aside and to listen to various pros and cons, I hope we’re able to do that,” he said. “Whether it’s an east side expansion or a west side expansion or looking at an alternative site, personally I would like to see that dialogue. This kind of reinforces that.”
However, Jensen said, the county did need to move ahead with the funding request at hand, for safety and code reasons.
“When the decision was not to move forward (with the Kwik Trip purchase), for safety purposes we have to do this,” he said.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.