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Our View: Oneida Board deserves praise for refusal to borrow money

Our views represent the institutional voice of The Lakeland Times.

They are researched and written independent of the newsroom.

For those who wanted Oneida County to borrow up to $2 million from the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) to fund some pretty important capital improvement projects, Tuesday was a bitter blow to their big-government dreams.

First, a compromise offered by supervisor Steve Schreier would have reduced the amount by more than $500,000, but even that wasn’t enough to get a majority of supervisors at the meeting to go along. They rejected all borrowing.

In the end, the big-government crowd needed 16 votes to borrow any money; they got nine. Ten supervisors voted no to any and all borrowing.

And they were right to do so. So hats off to these supervisors who stood up for taxpayers and for fiscal responsibility: Mike Timmons, Billy Fried, Bill Liebert, Jack Sorensen, Lance Krolczyk, Scott Holewinski, Mitch Ives, Bob Almekinder, Jim Winkler, and Greg Oettinger.

The issue was whether to borrow up to $2 million from the BCPL or to tap the general fund for $2,267,635 for nine 2020 capital improvement projects that both sides consider worthy and even vital.

After the vote, the big-government types on the county board floor were furious. Supervisor Robb Jensen at one point said that maybe none of the projects should be funded if it meant bringing the general fund down from the high heavens. What he didn’t say is that the resolution to use general funds rather than borrowing would simply return the general fund to a reasonable level from its bloated condition, achieved by years of overeating taxpayer dollars. 

He later relented, but it was, you know, a glorious burn Rome to save Rome kind of Kodak, excuse me, iPhone moment. 

Supervisor Bob Mott was likewise furious, both because someone suggested the board follow finance director Darcy Smith’s suggestions after it had in fact just ignored them (a fair point), but also because he apparently believes in the infallibility of the bureaucracy, or at least of former finance director Margie Sorenson and of current finance director Darcy Smith, whom in his rant he managed to merge into one superbureaucrat, an infallible hero he called Marcie, or maybe Marcy.

It was a very Max Weber kind of iPhone moment. And to think some people don’t like attending these meetings.

But while these two were off in other centuries and fantasies, opponents of the borrowing proposal made some very common-sense observations based on some very actual facts.

First, there is way more than enough money in the general fund to pay the $2-million plus for the nine projects without borrowing. In fact, the county can pay for those projects and still have an undesignated fund amount equal to 3.5 months, or 29%, of its annual operating expenditures, plus almost $500,000 on top of that in the bank. That’s about $9.4 million, free and clear — more than auditors recommend.

As one supervisor wondered, why would someone borrow for something they needed, and pay interest on it, when they have that kind of extra cash hanging around ? 

Yes, that’s an interesting question. Let’s see. We have extra cash in the bank — more than the reserve the auditors tell us to keep for a rainy day emergency — precisely because we overtaxed our residents. But instead of using that money, let’s overtax them again!

And this time let’s do it through debt so future taxpayers can pay it back! Brilliant!

Supervisor Bill Liebert correctly wondered that, if we borrowed now when we did not need to, what would the county do next year, and the next year, and the year after that?

The county would borrow more, of course, year after year after year, because the treasure looted from the taxpayers must be protected at all costs.

Supervisor Jack Sorensen also pointed out that the BCPL is a quick and easy way to borrow money any time a government needs it — and often times when it doesn’t — so we could get fast cash from the state ATM virtually any time of the day or night.

Why do it before we really need it? he asked.

He’s right. The BCPL loves to bankroll government projects, so much so that we thought that after the loan bid failed, BCPL agents would raid the place, hold an administrative rule to our collective head, and force us to borrow the money, under threat of having to listen to Doug La Follette read passages from his “Survival Handbook: A Strategy for Saving Planet Earth.”

No one would have survived that.

Along the way, proponents of the borrowing made some feeble arguments. If we spend down the general fund, they warned, our bond rating will go down. That kind of talk usually spills out of the mouths of corporate America, but we’re pretty sure this time it came from Mr. Jensen and from board chairman Dave Hintz, who, if they turn out to be human corporations, have just proved the existence of corporate personhood without any of us having to vote on this spring’s zany referenda questions.

Or maybe it was just Bob Mott chanting in the corner about the wonders and the glories of the UW Extension.

Anyway, the argument is a red herring because why would the county suffer a drop in its credit rating when it preserved the entire amount that its auditors recommend setting aside for a rainy day reserve, and, indeed, when it has set aside nearly 70% more than the Government Finance Officers Association recommends.

And what if a catastrophic emergency does occur, and the county has to aid its small municipalities? Well, that’s what a rainy day reserve is for in the first place. No one except Oneida County creates a second rainy day fund as a back-up for its primary rainy day fund.

What kind of crazy is that? Well, it’s bureaucrazy!

(Cue Mott chanting the glories and the wonders of the UW Extension.)

And, no, the county wouldn’t be punished if it tapped into this fund, so long as they have followed the Government Finance Officers Association’s recommendations that the county adopt a written policy on how it would renourish such a fund.

As you probably guessed by now, Oneida County has no such policy that we are aware of. Instead, it built Rainy Day Fund the Sequel.

Of course, and this is a gem, it wasn’t just Darcy Smith weighing in Tuesday for the bureaucracy. There was land information director Mike Romportl (aka Wheel Tax Mike) lobbying for government borrowing, and he said the borrowing plan was also supported by various department heads across the county.

Now it must be said that these department heads were not having Jensenonian or Mottonian fantasies of razing the county or have Super Marcy suddenly round the corner to save the big-government day.

No, their support was based on some very real fears. These bureaucrats know what’s coming.

(Cue Mott chanting the glories and the wonders of the UW Extension.)

It’s actually quite laughable when supervisors talk about the county’s excellent financial position, when in fact it’s been reckless and undisciplined for years. For years, as supervisor Scott Holewinski has pointed out, the county has overspent and overtaxed, creating non-essential and often frivolous programs.

They did that for years before the Great Recession when property values soared, creating more-than-robust tax collections, some of which should have been returned to taxpayers then. They did that by not taking levies off the tax rolls after the debts they were levied for were paid. And they did that by tapping the general fund for operating expenditures, among other things.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost, at least those that are in the proper big-government zoning districts, and the general fund is headed toward a place where it usually has not been: A place called Reasonable.

But that now means that all the unreasonable spending and programs hoisted upon taxpayers all these years might have to come to an end. 

(Cue Mott still chanting the glories and the wonders of the UW Extension.)

Maybe, in the end, Mott’s chants will be answered and the county board will rise up to bundle and borrow at the BCPL. Maybe Mott will find Super Marcy, or Marcie, if she is not at some master gardener’s class or participating in some government fusion experiment, and she will convince supervisors they can have their tax collections and eat taxpayers, too. 

Maybe Robb Jensen will fiddle in front of the courthouse without burning it down but instead convince his colleagues to join a good old-fashioned posse to round up taxpayers and burn them instead. 

Maybe, but those bureaucratic dreams sound too good to be true even in Oneida County. Tuesday was a day for reality, and it was a long overdue one.


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