The Oneida County Public Works Committee has been debating for years whether or not the county’s highway department has enough staff and the proper facilities and equipment to function at an adequate level to fulfill its duties.
That debate continued last Thursday as supervisors met to discuss plans for the future. They also received a six-page critique of the highway department from an outgoing foreman who resigned from the county and was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT).
Alex Hegeman worked for the county exactly 18 months before deciding to leave.
“I want to speak from my experience at this highway department, another highway department, and from my educational experience and background,” Hegeman told committee members at the meeting on Dec. 19. “I had visions of staying and maybe taking over for (highway commissioner) Bruce (Stefonek) when he retires. But right now, there’s just too many headaches for me to want to stay and do that.”
In the critique, Hegeman wrote “I am providing this evaluation not only as a soon-to-be former employee, but also as a taxpayer in this county. I want a department that operates efficiently, a department that protects the investment made in bridges, roadways and purchased equipment, and a department that operates in the best interest of its taxpayers in providing safe, practical solutions that encourages growth in our economic base within the county.”
Hegeman broke his observations into four categories:?facilities, equipment, road construction and maintenance, and manpower.
Hegeman wrote he believes the location of the current headquarters is a benefit to the department, as it “is located next to several state highways and is relatively centered in the county.” However, he said “many facilities are lacking in several areas.”
“The main shop was built in 1955 and is in need of many updates,” he said.
He cited the lack of a functioning exhaust system in the mechanics’ bay as “a safety hazard that needs to be addressed.”
Heated storage is also a problem at the Rhinelander facility, according to the critique. Hegeman said the patrol (plow and salt/sand) trucks require heated storage space so they can thaw after use, but space limitations mean several trucks must be left in the cold.
“Parts and hoses freeze up and material freezes in the boxes, and these issues will only add delays when the trucks are needed to respond to a storm event,” Hegeman wrote.
The recent addition of a liquid brine-maker and storage tanks have compounded the problem of patrol trucks being left in the cold. The brine equipment requires heated storage, and its addition to the Kemp Street facility takes up valuable space which could be occupied by trucks. Hegeman sees the problem increasing in magnitude as time passes.
“As the state and county transition to more liquid use for winter (road) maintenance, more storage tanks will be needed,” he wrote.
Cold storage is also a problem, according to the outgoing foreman, because in the summer, plows and other equipment are removed from trucks and stored outdoors.
“They become susceptible to the elements, and it takes mechanics twice as long to install (them) due to electrical connections failing and fittings becoming rusted and inoperable,” he wrote.
Another major problem for the Rhinelander facility is the county’s fuel system, which Hegeman says “needs to be upgraded in order to be state-compliant.”
He wrote the fuel system is critical to the overall operation of the department and to the county as a whole. During the snowstorm of Nov. 27 of this year, “an outlet went out that controlled the fuel system. On a day when the department was using thousands of gallons of fuel to power equipment, the fuel system cannot go down,” he wrote.
In addition, if the county were to experience another widespread power-outage like the one following the rain-and-windstorms of July 2019 “and knocks out power to all of Rhinelander, it is important that the highway facility have an operating fuel system for emergency responders,” Hegeman said.
The department has three satellite facilities, and Hegeman noted problems with the shops in Minocqua and Three Lakes.
“The Minocqua shop had exhaust leaks in their heating system that required several days to repair,” he said. In evaluating the Three Lakes shop, Hegeman said the facility is simply “undersized for the size of equipment that is standard today.” He also said the aged heating system in that shop failed and it took more than a month to get a new one in place.
Hegeman stressed to the committee it is not wise to push the department’s equipment past its expected useful life, which “is a predetermined number of years set by the state depending on the size and type of equipment.”
“Based on the state’s accounting system, it is important to replace equipment once it hits the end of its useful life,” he said.
“Selling equipment at that point will allow the department to recoup money from the sale and put (it) towards the purchase of new equipment,” Hegeman wrote. “Right now, when the department sells pieces of equipment, the equipment is so old and worn out that it is hard to get anything more than scrap price for them.”
“Because of the way the state does their accounting system, it’s important to be on their timeline; play their game,” Hegeman told the supervisors.
“Patrol trucks are estimated to have a useful life of 10 years,” he wrote. “The trucks that make up the department’s fleet include vehicles that are up to 20 years old ... and right now, the equipment budget can barely purchase one patrol truck.”
The department currently has 17 trucks to cover maintenance routes and six spares. Of those 23 trucks, 14 are beyond their 10-year life expectancy.
Hegeman said during the snowstorms of Dec. 12 and 13, the shop was “overwhelmed with breakdowns” and reported one driver had four trucks break down on him in a single day.
“This can drive morale down,” Hegeman wrote. “The employees get frustrated when they are prevented from performing their job(s) well because of mechanical failures. This also prevents the department from clearing the roads in a timely manner. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence during snowstorms.”
According to Hegeman, most of the county’s fleet of construction equipment (loaders, skid-steers, and tractors) has passed its useful life, as have most of the pickup trucks owned by the department.
Road construction and maintenance
The State of Wisconsin employs a rating system referred to as the “PASER scale” to visually evaluate the condition of roads and highways and rate them on a scale from 1 to 10. Oneida County’s roads and highways received a PASER rating averaging 5.59, which is considered “fair” by the state. Some roads in the county received a rating as low as 2.
Hegeman urged the committee to work towards improvement of that score and attributed the low number to the facts “that the county has old roads that are simply falling apart and ... the county does not do enough maintenance to preserve its roads.”
“The department’s maintenance budget needs to be increased in order to perform maintenance activities on county roads ... (including) crack-sealing, chip-sealing, wedging, ditching, shoulder maintenance, and brushing,” Hegeman wrote. “The past few years, the department has gotten into chip-sealing county roads, which is great. However, the budget is only large enough to do 7 to 10 miles per year, which is only 4 to 6% of (the county’s) roads.”
“We’re not making a huge dent,” he said, “But it is helping.”
“One positive thing the department has going for it is that the crew wants to come to work and do a good job every day,” Hegeman told the supervisors. “I surely believe that. But when we look at things like equipment going down or not enough manpower on crews or things like that, morale goes down. And that doesn’t help anything.”
He cited the fact there are only two mechanics to service all vehicles, which sometimes causes back-ups. As often happens in the winter, the crews are stretched so thin the mechanics are forced to drive patrol trucks themselves, leaving the shop empty.
“With our current staff, if we have guys off, our patrol superintendent and our shop superintendent will end up in trucks out on routes,” Hegeman said. “This is counter-productive because one, they’re salaried employees, so if they’re on a state route, we’re not charging the state for their time; and two, they’re supervisors. They need to be supervising the crew.”
He wrote in his critique “this is not their responsibility.”
According to Hegeman, understaffing also translates to slipshod training.
“The department has four new employees that are in plow trucks that have never plowed before,” he wrote. “With so few employees, the department is unable to adequately train operators before sending them out on the road. This is a safety issue ... workers are thrown to the wolves to learn on their own.”
Committee chairman Robb Jensen thanked Hegeman for his time with the county and for his detailed critique.
“Much of what you have in here, we’re aware of,” Jensen said to Hegeman. “We do have some capital improvement projects scheduled for 2020 that will address some of those issues.”
“From (my) sitting on the administration committee, I think what we’re going to have to do is to start our ’21 budget process earlier than we ever have,” Jensen said, looking beyond 2020. “Because this isn’t the only department we’re looking at where we’re falling behind. And how do we fund it? We’re looking for ways to do that. I think there’s a lot of good things in here in terms of maintenance, equipment, and facilities. It’s frustrating for us, too. We look at our budget and say ‘How do we make this work?’”
“I know you guys have a difficult and frustrating job when there’s not enough money to go around,” Hegeman replied.
“On the staffing issue, I don’t know the answer to that,” Jensen said. “If we were to increase two full-time people, is that going to work in terms of the overall budget?”
“It’s all about money,” supervisor Sonny Paszak said.
“We need to get a one-to-10-year plan,” Stefonek told the committee. “Funds are limited ... But I need to have a direction. There are a lot of things here (referring to Hageman’s evaluation), but there are no dollar figures ... Let’s put this on a future agenda if you guys could take some time to help me plan what our next direction should be.”
“This is not new to the committee,” Jensen said. “We’ve been negligent in addressing our facility needs for four years. And all I’ve asked — and I’ve tried this before — is ‘Would the committee like to sit down and review the functions of a highway facility and determine whether or not the current facility meets those functions?’ And I understand I’m the poster child for a new facility. And I haven’t said that. What I said is ‘Does our current facility meet the needs of a highway department as we go into 2020 and the next decade?’
“At the next meeting,” Jensen said, “We’ll have some options to take a look at. I think we’re at that point.”
“We can put together all kinds of money that we need, but if it goes to the county board and gets kicked out ...” supervisor Scott Holewinski warned.
“Right,” Jensen said. “And that’s an issue as we look at 2021 and 2022. The only way we can do some of these things ... is that we’ve got to borrow. But I think the public works committee needs to make a case for ‘This is why we may need to borrow.’ We can argue in terms of ‘Borrow for what?’ or whatever, but we need to prioritize that.”