At its regular meeting Jan. 13, the town board of St. Germain discussed with Vilas County sheriff Joe Fath speed enforcement on town roads, as well as the possibilities of more patrols and an increased presence of deputies at special events.
Town residents have been asking the board for stricter speed limit enforcement — especially in residential areas — for quite some time.
St. Germain does not have its own police force, so jurisdiction of law enforcement in the town falls by default to the Office of Sheriff of Vilas County.
What’s been unclear to the board is whether or not speed limits on town roads are, in fact, enforceable. Town roads are those which are not classified as state or county highways.
“As far as the speed limits, what’s necessary for a ticket to be written on a town road in our town for speeding?” town chairman Tom Christensen asked Fath.
“Well, first of all, the speed zones have to comply with state statute,” Fath answered. “We had an opinion from DOT (Wisconsin Department of Transportation) that said if a town modifies the speed limit below 10 miles an hour — so anything 45 and below — it has to be approved by DOT through a traffic study or a traffic engineer’s study for enforcement to occur under state statute.”
Furthermore, Fath said he and his deputies enforce statutes and ordinances on state and county highways, but “we cannot enforce town ordinances unless we have an enforcement contract with the town.
“So that would have to be between the town and the county and the sheriff,” Fath said. “We don’t have any enforcement contracts with any towns right now. Prior to 2005, there was no need for a contract, but the statute changed in 2005 that required this contract with the sheriff ... I just don’t know what happened that changed the law. I haven’t looked into it that far.”
“Are you suggesting our department would not enforce our speed limits?” supervisor Ted Ritter asked.
“I can’t,” Fath replied.
“Until that DOT approval has been obtained?” Ritter asked.
“And until a contract with the town for enforcement occurs,” Fath answered.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that,” Ritter said. “It’s news to me.”
“So, then, the contract with the town and the county sheriff’s department has to be worked out,” Christensen said. “And there’s quite a few more steps after we get started in this procedure. And I think that the end result is that if you write a ticket, it’s not going to able to be thrown out of court because of not having the authority.”
“I’m sure we have issued citations in the town pursuant to those speed signs, but they’ve obviously never been challenged,” Fath said.
Christensen expressed some concern over two prior requests made by St. Germain to lower speed limits which were rejected by the DOT.
“They would not lower it,” he said. “They said ‘No, there’s no justification to lower it’ ... So you don’t necessarily — just because you think it’s a good idea — get it done.”
Fath said he and his deputies regularly write citations for reckless or inattentive driving, failure to obey traffic control devices (like stop signs), and other infractions.
“We’ve adopted basically the whole moving violation section of the state statutes under 7.01 county traffic code,” he said, but town-ordained speed limits (without DOT approval and a contract with the Sheriff’s Office) are outside his purview to enforce.
Christensen said he would contact the DOT to begin the process of state approval.
“Obviously, that is going to have to be done at some point if this conversation is going to continue forward,” he said.
In the meantime, the town will investigate the possibility of purchasing a radar unit which flashes the speed of oncoming cars. Tickets cannot be issued based on information gathered by those units, but they do tend to slow traffic on roads where they are in use.
‘Everybody comes through St. Germain’
“The other thing that’s come up is more road patrolling by deputies,” Christensen said. “In other words, a bigger presence of the sheriff’s department in the Town of St. Germain as patrolling goes. And in the neighborhoods, not just on (Wisconsin State) Highway 70 or (Wisconsin State) Highway 155, but seeing a deputy’s squad car go through different residential areas just as a patrol.”
“We just try to do the best that we can,” Fath said. “And the general patrol in St. Germain? St. Germain probably has the most saturation of any town in Vilas County because our officers are coming through St. Germain. Our county is set up in east, west, and central zones. So, when we have to go west or north, everybody comes through St. Germain.”
“I don’t know that any other town in the county gets that saturation level,” Fath continued. “Plus, we have a number of officers that live here in St. Germain. So if something does happen, we all have take-home cars. Those officers will respond right from their houses.”
Christensen also asked if a larger presence by the sheriff’s office during special events might be a possibility in the future.
“For instance, on the Fourth of July, every town in the county wants deputies. And we don’t have enough deputies to go around,” Fath said. “We do our best with the staffing that we have, but obviously, we’re not staffed for the summer population in Vilas County. We’re staffed for the resident population of Vilas County. So we get squeezed. During the snowmobile derby, we get extremely busy. We try to do the best we can and have a presence, but we don’t have enough personnel when there’s major events.”