Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.
Most often, good government is boring government. For the better part of a decade, the goings on at the city of West Bend have been boring. The city has paid off debt, kept spending and taxes down, increased the fund balance, improved the city’s bond rating, controlled costs, etc. — all while maintaining and improving essential services and tackling a couple of big projects. Boring? Yes. But it is precisely the kind of boring that is the hallmark of good government.
At the dawn of the current decade, West Bend was in trouble. The city had been transitioning from a vibrant manufacturing and commercial center to more of a mixed economy. The presence of county government, MPTC, UWWC, and other government entities helped insulate some city residents from the worst of the Great Recession, but the private sector was hit hard. Unemployment peaked at 14.1 percent and wages were down.
City government was struggling to make ends meet. In 2010, the debt service of almost $6 million per year to make payments on $80 million in debt consumed over 23 percent of the city’s operations budget. The city’s unassigned fund balance was floating at about 11 percent — well below the standard of 17 percent that the Government Finance Officers Association (GFAO) considers the benchmark for fiscal stability. City leaders at the time were using debt as a crutch to maintain bloated spending without raising taxes in a community that has always been resistant to tax increases.
West Bend needed a change. West Bend needed leadership.
Following the Great Recession, many local residents, many of whom were energized by the Tea Party movement sweeping the nation, began to look to their own communities. In West Bend, strong conservatives began running for local office with an eye to infusing city government with conservative leadership. Conservatives like Tony Turner (2008), Ed Duquaine (2010), Steve Hutchins (2011), Randy Koehler (2011), Kraig Sadownikow (2011) and others challenged more liberal incumbents and won with a strong conservative agenda.
As 2019 dawns, the residents of West Bend can see the results of several years of conservative leadership. For several years, the city has been steadily paying off debt without adding to it. This has brought the $80 million debt down to $53 million — a 34 percent reduction in total debt. The payments on that debt have dropped from $5.94 million in 2010 to a budgeted $3.74 million in 2019. That is a drop from 23 percent of the city’s operations budget to just under 15 percent and has freed up $2.2 million in budget that can now be spent on city services instead of debt.
Meanwhile, the Unassigned Fund Balance, which used to sit at a paltry 11 percent, is now a healthy 25 percent. The increase in this fund balance above the recommended floor of 17 percent is one of the driving factors behind the city’s improving bond rating.
Through all of this, the city has kept spending flat. In 2019, the city of West Bend’s Operations Budget will be $25.25 million. That is $0.1 million decrease from the 2010 budget. Accounting for inflation, the city has been reducing spending while reducing debt and taxes. Meanwhile, city services are as good as ever, downtown is thriving, and the city’s private sector economy is blossoming.
None of this happened by magic. Mayor Sadownikow and the conservatives on the Common Council have accomplished this by making smart, conservative decisions over and over again while not succumbing to chattering spenders constantly in their ears.
For example, in 2012 there was a legitimate need to renovate and expand the city hall and city police department, which are in the same building. Ideas ranged from building a new facility for the police department to moving city hall into downtown to renovating the existing building. The price tag ranged into the tens of millions. In the end, city leaders took the prudent step of doing just what they needed to renovate the existing building at a cost of $8.6 million. Some of the aldermen even picked up some hammers to volunteer their labor for part of the demolition to control costs. It wasn’t a flashy new building, but it served the needs of the community.
Another seemingly small decision with big dividends was getting employee benefits under control with the power of Act 10 and negotiating with the fire and police unions. For example, for years, part of the West Bend contract with our firefighters allowed them to convert sick leave to health insurance payments when they retired as early as age 52. While it made sense when health insurance was cheap decades ago, it had ballooned into a $17 million unfunded liability for city taxpayers.
Through negotiations and cooperation with the firefighters union, the city began pulling back that obligation in 2013 and are eliminating it in 2019. City taxpayers will honor the obligation for older employees, but replace it with a funded Post Employment Health Plan for new employees. This will completely eliminate the city’s unfunded liability bomb with the next generation of city firefighters while still providing for their post retirement needs.
Good local government is not about fancy new buildings, flamboyant politicians, or flashy initiatives. It is about good decisions, rooted in common sense and humble restraint, consistently made for the long term benefit of the community. The city of West Bend is doing it right.