Here is my full column that ran yesterday in the Washington County Daily News
When Governor Scott Walker lost, there was a real sense that something special had come to an end. I felt much the same way when I learned that West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow had resigned to avoid the reality or appearance of a conflict of interest. Mayor Sadownikow was a wonderful example of the citizen self-governance at its best.
When Sadownikow first ran for office, he did so to fix a problem in his home town. As the owner of a local design and build construction company, Sadownikow worked with municipalities throughout Wisconsin and knew first hand that West Bend was a difficult place to do business. He set out with a goal of bringing private sector principles into local government to get West Bend to move at the speed of business.
Up until then, West Bend was run like most Wisconsin municipalities. The local government denizens generally worked hard to not rock the boat. Taxes were steadily increased. The continual borrowing had put West Bend in the bottom 10% of local governments in the state in terms of debt burden. Businesses and homeowners alike chafed whenever they had to deal with local bureaucrats.
Mayor Sadownikow entered office with a fresh perspective of a first-time office holder who wanted to make his city serve the public better. He began by “asking questions that were never asked before,” as he is fond of saying. Through hard work and the cooperation of a conservative, engaged majority on the Common Council, Sadownikow began to change West Bend’s story for the better. The list of accomplishments is impressive for eight years in office.
Throughout Sadownikow’s entire time in office, the City of West Bend did not raise taxes. That is impressive enough, but important to remember as we look at the other accomplishments.
When Sadownikow entered office, West Bend was almost $80 million in debt. The debt service was choking the budget and the city’s bond rating suffered. In eight years, through frugal spending and smart management, the city has reduced that debt by over a third to $53 million. As a consequence, the city’s bond rating has improved and millions of budget dollars have been freed up to fund city services.
While keeping taxes flat and paying down debt, West Bend also increased the unassigned reserve fund. This is the city’s savings account that they can use for unforeseen expenses like a natural disaster or other unforeseen expense. The Government Officers Finance Association recommends a reserve fund of 17% of budget. West Bend’s reserve fund was 11.18% in 2012, but has increased to 25.11% as of 2017. This puts the city in a great financial condition.
While keeping taxes flat, paying down debt, and building the reserve fund, West Bend and Mayor Sadownikow accomplished a lot. City services are as good or better than when Sadownikow assumed office. The city expanded and renovated the police station and city hall. The east side of the river has been beautifully rebuilt with the west side waiting its turn. The city added an industrial park and attracted businesses like Kwik Trip, Fleet Farm, and Delta Defense to build and expand.
Beyond the things one can see, Sadownikow led the improvement of things that are harder to see. Prior to Sadownikow, the public employee unions negotiated their contracts with a midlevel city bureaucrat. Sadownikow ensured that an elected official was at the negotiating table to represent the taxpayers. In the most recent contracts with the fire and police unions, the city ended its unfunded obligation to retirement healthcare. This will help ensure that the city can afford to generously compensate our first responders for years to come for the service they provide.
Often with the help of citizen task forces, Sadownikow reformed city finances, outsourced services where it made sense, made Parks & Recreation self-sustaining, and fostered a culture or customer service, responsiveness, and accountability. While the city might still not quite move at the speed of business, it is catching up.
There are already signs that West Bend is slipping back into its old ways. There is a band of Alderpersons who would rather go back to increasing taxes each year to avoid making hard decisions. The Common Council votes on the 2020 budget next week and we will know very soon how sorely Mayor Sadownikow’s leadership will be missed if the tax increasers get their way.
Mayor Sadownikow said, “Local government is not that hard. Maintain a safe community; look out for the future; and take care of the checkbook.” He certainly accomplished those three things and more. His successor should heed that advice.