/ Articles / Oneida County department heads weigh in on county’s fiscal future In tough challenge, some bureaucrats swing low; others, for the fences

Oneida County department heads weigh in on county’s fiscal future In tough challenge, some bureaucrats swing low; others, for the fences

July 19, 2019 by Richard Moore

News analysis



When Oneida County established a funding opportunities committee to try and find an additional $800,000 a year for wage increases — and to ponder the county’s fiscal future in general — the mammoth task of finding new revenues and/or cutting spending fell not merely on the shoulders of county board supervisors but on those of department heads as well.

Several department heads sit on the committee, in fact, and all department heads were directed to fill out a survey asking for their ideas about potential revenues and spending reductions, efficiencies, potential outsourcing opportunities, and job-sharing.

In general, those surveys have given a hint at just how hard it is to operate year after year in a zero-increase environment for non-personnel budgets. The answers also demonstrate just how difficult it is to find cost-saving efficiencies in a county that has been searching for such efficiencies for years. 

Indeed, in her survey, county facilities director LuAnn Brunette, said just that: “I have been with the county over 30 years,” she wrote. “County officials have been looking for efficiencies and savings since the beginning of my employment with the county. I do not see additional ways efficiencies can be created.”

That might be largely true, for department heads did seem to be scouring every line item for a penny here and a penny there, and many revenue ideas were also nickel-and-dime proposals.

Still, under the “every penny counts” approach, an accumulation of small cost savings or revenue increases — a hundred dollars here, a thousand dollars there — can become significant over time.

Surprisingly, though, more than few county employees did identify ways to save significant amounts of money or raise substantial revenues, many by employing creative approaches to running government, and others by offering ideas that would bring the county into the modern era and abandon its Flintstonish ways in some critical areas.

To cite just one example, a number of department heads called on the county to implement the ability to pay for certain services online with a credit or debit card, as a way to increase collections. The county still doesn’t accept such payments, even though they are widespread throughout both the public and private sectors.

A few other department heads, most notably zoning director Karl Jennrich and Oneida County chief deputy Dan Hess, were even bolder, saying the county could undertake a sweeping elimination of programs, such as getting rid of general zoning (Jennrich, though he did not endorse the virtual elimination of his department) and booting the UW-Extension (Hess).



Indirect billing of costs

A number of department heads, such as social services director Mary Rideout, said the county should do more in the way of billing the indirect costs of some programs to the grants that fund them, as her department already does. 

“Agency management/support and overhead costs, as well as county indirect costs, should be billed to all grants,” she wrote. “The department of social services already does this and would be happy to assist any other county department on this.”

Indirect costs represent the expenses of doing business that are not directly tied to a particular program but fund the general operation of the organization, making it possible to administer the grant program in the first place. Such costs include administrative and overhead costs, clerical salaries and benefits, office supplies, local telephone line charges, and postage, among others — support services several departmental programs may share and which are critical to the fulfillment of the grant programs or services.

Government grants often make provisions for a rate of reimbursement for a share of those costs if they are sought in a grant agreement. Otherwise the agency absorbs the cost.

Beyond billing for indirect costs, Rideout said that, while many department heads have proposed raising fees for some of their services, that would probably not be worthwhile in social services.

“We are (have been) exploring additional fees that can be implemented for our services, but the amount is so small, in the past it was determined that the cost to collect would be greater,” she wrote.

But Rideout had other significant ideas, such as moving to electronic case files to eliminate paper filing, shredding, and storage costs, and she wrote that centralized printing within departments would eliminate the need for multiple printers and reduce paper costs, while the ability to accept credit card payments could increase collections.

Rideout said the department was also increasing its use of county vehicles; implementing more flexible schedules for social workers to reduce overtime, including a work from home option; making more targeted use of grant dollars; replacing personal computers with laptops and docking stations; and increasing prevention programming, among others.



Fly away, fly away

Over in the county clerk’s office, county clerk Tracy Hartman said the nature of her operation put a focus on smaller savings and revenue opportunities.

“Within the clerk’s office we have looked at offering passports, which would bring in revenue,” Hartman wrote in her survey. “It would not be significant, however, we think it would be approximately $750 a year. Passports could be up and running by 2020.”

And while there would be an initial cost of $400 for some equipment, Hartman said the revenue stream would be an ongoing one.

Over on the spending side, Hartman found a small but potentially more significant source of savings if carried out across all agencies, namely, by using Amazon in place of, or in addition to, OfficeMax. 

“Finance opened a business account through Amazon,” Hartman wrote. “We recently needed to purchase office supplies and compared the contracted prices through OfficeMax with the prices offered through Amazon and saved $100 on our order through Amazon. I’m not sure if other departments are using this service or if they continue to go through OfficeMax because that is the preferred method.”

Health department director Linda Conlon urged the county to implement quality improvement and performance management systems county-wide. The health department has become a leader in those areas.

Conlon also said an RV park would add revenue to the health department and to the county. She said her department could review its fees, too, including alcohol and tobacco fees, to see if increases were an option. In addition, she suggested implementing a long-term rental inspection program, and providing bike rentals at parks and trail heads.

“Do a time study of all departments to determine where time is spent and determine if there are any ways we could share people or services,” she also wrote, and additionally suggested the county engage with an online credit card system.

Some things which have been tried did not work, Conlon said.

“Combining software programs to save money has been slower than anticipated,” she wrote. “Decreasing hours in a position did save money, but it limited our services. Splitting one position into two positions didn’t save money, but it did decrease flexibility and ownership in some and increased it in others. Shuffling employees from department to department doesn’t always work out even if there is a cost savings.”



Outsourcing

Outsourcing has been a popular topic in county board circles for a long time — could the county contract with private vendors for some services and jobs and save money? — and one position mentioned has been that of payroll processing.

In her survey, finance director Darcy Smith remained unconvinced. For one thing, she cautioned, outsourcing would not completely eliminate the need for a payroll position.

“A review of time cards for accuracy, completeness, and adherence to employee handbook would still be necessary, along with recording the information into the county accounting records,” Smith wrote. “The employee would still need to contact the outside vendor with questions on the payroll calculation.”

While Smith said she was unsure if there would be any savings, she said other counties had had a tough time when they attempted payroll outsourcing. 

“Shawano has been in the process of transitioning their payroll to an outside vendor for more than six months,” she wrote. “It has been a difficult transition. Waushara County has been outsourcing their payroll since 2015 and are considering bringing it back in-house in 2020.”

Facilities director LuAnn Brunette said cleaning was at one time outsourced, and it was a disaster.

“The court calendar was changed and a file destroyed by one of the workers, had it not been for a duplicate calendar and file in the DA’s office, the cleaning tech would have gotten out of charges; a cleaning technician ‘stalked’ a female employee and left notes on her desk; a cleaning technician stole money from a cash fund in an office; a cleaning technician stole one of the judges’ robes; cleaning technicians used the wrong products on walls, floors, and fixtures in four bathrooms, resulting in over $20,000 in replaced finishes and fixtures to repair the damage; the cleaning was not done with any pride of workmanship; work was done poorly or not at all,” she wrote. 

Hess was likewise not a fan of outsourcing. 

He recalled that years ago the county had outsourced its courthouse maintenance, but ended the program because of employee theft. And the sheriff department’s own experience with outsourcing had not been positive, Hess wrote.

“The sheriff’s office contracted squad/ambulance maintenance out in the past and this proved to be a higher cost than having an in-house mechanic,” he wrote. “By having a mechanic, we were able to spare the cost of a new ambulance this year, which is a huge savings to the county.”



Fees and Christmas trees

Highway commissioner Bruce Stefonek said the highway department could generate some new revenues, but capital outlays would first be required. A brine building with the capacity to serve all seven county snowplow routes, as well as to sell to the city and towns, could generate huge savings, he wrote. 

The DOT is furnishing the highway department a high capacity brine maker that is able to produce 5,000 gallons of brine an hour, Stefonek wrote, but a brine building would cost about $400,000.

A truck wash would add longevity to county trucks, he added.

Dianne Jacobson, the director of the Aging & Disability Resource Center, suggested Paid Time Off reforms, including reducing the ceiling on PTO banks and requiring a minimum PTO use of vacation days. She also suggested changing to an accrued PTO system being earned every pay period, and she suggested that the finance department assist grant-funded programs in expensing PTO to the grants so it does not become a later liability for the county.

Jason Rhodes, the county’s IT director, said his department could begin charging for some services now provided free of charge and could begin selling other services.

“We could sell our website design and development to other outlying agencies, like Rhinelander PD (Police Department), Minocqua PD, Three Lakes PD, Human Services Center,” he wrote. “We could charge our outlying sites for the IT services they receive. Some police departments use parts of our infrastructure to connect to New World; we assist with connectivity, printing, logon accounts, troubleshooting — all valid services we could attach a cost to.”

Over at the forestry department, Paul Fiene, the assistant forest director, also called for more online capabilities.

“The ability to allow online reservations of the shelter facilities, online permits (firewood, balsam bough, Christmas tree) using credit cards would likely free up staff time,” Fiene wrote. “In addition, a convenience fee for online reservations using credit cards could be charged.”

Fiene also noted snowmobile and ATV grant programs allow counties to retain administration fees from payments to clubs for trail maintenance and development, though he observed that suggestion has in the past met with strong opposition from both snowmobile and ATV interests.

Still, Fiene wrote, the county could possibly retain $25 per mile of state-funded snowmobile and ATV trails, which would yield about $10,000 a year for snowmobile trails and $900 per year for ATV trails.

Fiene also noted the forestry department budgets $19,900 a year for the Rhinelander Area Silent Trails Association (RASTA), of which $3,200 is set aside in a nonlapsing equipment replacement fund and $16,700 is used for trail maintenance. 

“If they do not spend the entire $16,700 on trail maintenance, RASTA has been allowed to keep the unused funds and they place it in a separate trail development fund,” he wrote. “If the county only pays RASTA their actual expenses, plus the $3,200 for equipment purchases, a savings to the forestry budget would be realized.”



Where no bureaucrat has gone before

Some county department heads decided to be bold, very bold for bureaucrats, with several uttering the “tax” word, and one other department head observing that the heart of his department could actually be eliminated.

That latter official is county zoning director Karl Jennrich, who saw ways the county could drop some programs wholesale, though in some cases he said there would be ramifications.

For instance, Jennrich wrote, the county could just dump floodplain zoning. 

“This program is not mandated,” he wrote. “Could get rid of whole program. The ramifications would be no funds would be available if there is a declared emergency in the event of flooding.”

The consequences might not be so dire if the county just got out of the general zoning business, though towns would have to pick up the regulatory slack if they wanted regulations.

“(General zoning) is not mandated,” he wrote. “County could get out of zoning and leave it up to the towns. Oneida County was the first county to have zoning in the United States of America. Towns would have to figure out if they wanted to regulate and there is a process for them to adopt their own zoning ordinances.”

To be fair, Jennrich did not actually recommend doing away with such programs, but his list did reveal that a county wanting to significantly slim down its land-use regulations could truly slash spending and increase property rights if it wanted to do so.

Hess was equally aggressive in pointing out that the county could save money by eliminating programs, only the ones he listed were not within the sheriff’s department.

According to Hess, for example, the county could save rental space at the airport and $184,703 by eliminating the UW Extension — an agency that others over the years have said should be axed.

Another $41,800 could be saved, Hess wrote, by ditching the North Central Regional Planning Commission. Cutting land conservation programs in the planning and development department would save another $47,838, while eliminating the tourism council would save $100,000.

And Hess said the county should stop adding new positions while asking other departments to do more with less.

“These services may be beneficial for some residents of the county, but we need to focus on attracting and retaining good employees,” he wrote. “The population of the county does not support adding new positions.”

Finally, several employees dared to mention the notion of new or higher taxes. 

Land information director Mike Romportl has done so, not in his survey, but in a funding opportunities committee meeting, after looking at the surveys.

“Frankly I don’t think (new taxes) should be taken off the table, as a whole,” Romportl said at a June meeting. “If you’ve read these responses from the departments, you can sense how they have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. … I don’t like new taxes, either, but the reality of it is there may be a time when this county is going to have take a look at that.”

In his survey, highway commissioner Bruce Stefonek brought up the idea of a wheel tax, saying it should be investigated. Because wheel taxes must be used for transportation-related purposes, his department stands to gain.

“(It) may result in ending annual contribution from the general fund plus additional income for county highway construction,” he wrote. 

The money for roads is needed, Stefonek argued.

“County highways with the proper maintenance could last 25-30 years,” he wrote. “Due to the lack of past funding, Oneida County has fallen beyond that threshold. According to our records, the oldest highway is 38 years old, followed by 34, 28, and numerous at 24 years old.”

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.

 

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