Category Archives: Politics – Wisconsin

Republicans Propose Using Surplus for Tax Cut

I agree. By definition, a surplus is money they didn’t budget and don’t need. Give it back.

Assembly Republicans are proposing a 10 percent income tax cut for middle-class Wisconsinites in what they say is an effort to help Democratic Gov. Tony Evers deliver on one of his campaign promises — but Evers isn’t jumping on board.

The Republican proposal would use a budget surplus to expand the sliding scale standard deduction for the individual income tax to give “targeted relief to the middle class,” said state Rep. Terry Katsma, R-Oostburg, in a news conference announcing the plan.

Assembly Republicans held six press conferences throughout the state to highlight the proposal, which would cost $490 million in its first year and an estimated $338 million per year after that. As of June 30, the state’s general fund had a positive balance of $588.5 million based on cash accounting.

Evers campaigned on cutting middle-class income taxes by 10 percent, but his proposal was tied to scaling back the state’s manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, which reduces the state income tax for manufacturers and agricultural producers.

You’ll notice that Evers isn’t as interested in a tax cut for the middle class as he is in hitting manufacturers and farmers with a tax increase.

I do think that the Republicans are being too cute by half by glibly claiming that they are trying to help Evers fulfill a campaign promise. Just propose it, own it, and pass it. Let Evers decide for himself if he wants to take credit for it or veto it.

 

“school board member is the most underutilized position in Wisconsin.”

Bill Savage’s letter to the editor in the Washington County Daily News is spot on. In West Bend, we will have a referendum on the same ballot as the school board candidates. Voters deserve to know exactly where they stand.

To the editor: After serving on Hartford’s school boards for 12 years, I can tell you with the utmost certainty that being a school board member is the most underutilized position in Wisconsin.

Since Act 10, school boards have an enormous amount of influence over several issues. School boards can offer merit-based bonus programs, provide direction for curriculum and set the tone for the educational experience children receive. School boards have the ability to make personnel changes. No longer do board members have to sit back and watch the union veto every decision made. Since Act 10, being a school board member is an important position.

I’ve asked the question before, but I’ll ask it again: Where does the buck stop at the Hartford Union High School? The principal? The administrator? The School Board? The proverbial buck stops with you, the voter.

In the last election for the HUHS Board of Education, there were three candidates vying for two seats — three candidates with no campaign. Not one flier was distributed, not one issue was discussed and not one article on their positions was written.

The absence of an issue-based campaign serves no one. Right now we run the risk of having an entire school board that really doesn’t know why they were elected or what is expected of them. Running for office on issues and winning gives you a moral compass on what direction the people who elected you expect you to pursue. Without that moral compass, those board members do not have the confidence to stand up for us, or shall I say, “we the people.”

In April, there are four candidates for two seats. I’d like to know why they are running, what their concerns are, and of course, more importantly, what they intend to do to improve HUHS.

Bill Savage

Hartford

Evers Throws Shade at GOP Bill Without Reading It

That’s how it’s going to be, eh?

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday signaled skepticism of a bill lawmakers are advancing that requires health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions on some — but not all — health plans.

“My point is it’s important that whatever passes the Legislature has to be equal to or better than what exists at the federal level,” Evers told reporters Tuesday, but noted he had not yet read the bill.

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News this week.

During the deliberation about Wisconsin’s current budget, the most contentious issue was about whether or not we should increase spending on the state’s transportation infrastructure. One reason that the debate was so heated is because with Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund, increasing spending means an unpopular increase in taxes. As we begin debating Wisconsin’s next budget, transportation spending is again a hot issue, but the lines of battle need to move.

The state of Wisconsin first segregated the transportation fund from the general fund in 1945, some 22 years before the Department of Transportation was created. Wisconsin has several taxes and fees that shovel money into the transportation fund including gas taxes, registration fees, fees on rental vehicles, airline property taxes, railroad property taxes, outdoor advertising revenue, etc. The two primary transportation funding sources are the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

All of these funding sources have one thing in common. They are meant to serve as a proxy for usage. The underlying philosophy of transportation funding in Wisconsin is that people who use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure more should pay more for it. The difficulty is that as the technology of transportation has advanced and diversified, usage proxies like fuel consumption have become less valid.

Setting aside for the moment the debate over whether or not Wisconsin needs to spend more on transportation (we do not), in the current paradigm, if Wisconsin wants to spend more, then we need to raise existing taxes or find new ones. Neither of those options has been popular.

Several states have implemented toll roads to generate more revenue, but the idea has been almost universally rejected in Wisconsin. The idea of a tax on actual mileage has been floated in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but the thought of the government tracking our vehicles is distasteful.

The friction between the opposition to increased taxes grinding against the push for more transportation spending is what creates the heat for the political debate. The friction is misplaced. The heart of the debate is centered on the supposition that only the people who directly use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure should be the ones to pay for it. That is why the transportation fund is segregated and that is why all of the supporting taxes and fees are targeted at people who use the transportation system. The supposition is flawed.

Everyone in Wisconsin benefits from Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure irrespective of how much they actually use it themselves. Every Wisconsinites benefits either directly or indirectly from the commerce that relies on our transportation infrastructure, the goods and services delivered to our homes and retailers, the accessibility of emergency services, and so much more. The person who does not own a car and has everything delivered to their home benefits just as much as the avid driver who is on the road several times a day.

If everyone benefits from our transportation infrastructure, why are we getting twisted around the axle of who pays for it? Shouldn’t we all pay for it? Wisconsinites have long since agreed that we all benefit from, and all should pay for, education, law enforcement, environmental protections, etc. It is time for transportation to join the club.

While some taxes and fees are designated for transportation needs and lawmakers are constitutionally prohibited from spending that revenue on other needs, the spending for transportation can come from any source. Over the years, it has been quite common for the budget to transfer tax revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund to supplement the spending. In the current budget, over $82 million was spent on transportation from the general fund.

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmental protection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

Wisconsin does not need to spend more on transportation infrastructure, but if lawmakers think it does, they do not need to raise taxes. They can easily use the general fund to increase spending and explain to the taxpayers why it is a priority. That is their job.

West Bend School Board Votes for Referendum

In the least surprising news of the new year, the West Bend School Board has decided to ask the taxpayers to go further into debt to build a new school in a district with mediocre performance and declining enrollment. Neat.

Jan. 15, 2019 – West Bend, WI – The West Bend School Board set the initial resolution for the April 2, 2019 referendum question at $47 million. The true cost with interest at about 4.25 percent, according to John Mehan with Robert W. Baird & Co., will bring the total to $74 million as that will include $27 million in interest.

[…]

Cobbling together the outstanding debt of $34,431,000 plus the proposed referendum and interest of $74 million the total, if approved in April 2019 would bring, the West Bend School District debt on referendums to $108,431,000.

That’s roughly $1,400 in debt for every man, woman, and child in the school district. Nuts.

Meanwhile, they are killing the district’s charter school.

Jan. 15, 2019 – West Bend, WI – Parents and students lined up at Monday night’s West Bend School Board meeting to express their displeasure about the district’s plan to possibly eliminate Pathways Charter School.

According to  documentation posted on the School District site a recommendation will be made for Pathways to be eliminated.

We wouldn’t want innovation or anything crazy like that in the stolid, old, 20th-century education model being offered by the West Bend School District.

 

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I point out that the lines of battle over transportation funding/spending are in the wrong place. We don’t have to raise taxes to spend more on transportation. If people think we need to spend more (I don’t), then they just need to prioritize it over other needs like education, prisons, etc. It about priorities and one of the biggest priorities should be to NOT raise taxes. Here’s a part:

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmentalprotection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

 

 

Wisconsin No Longer “Open for Business”

Mark Belling broke this story, but it is a jarring signal that one of Evers’ first acts as governor was to strip the state welcome signs of the “open for business” message.

WFRV – On the borders of Wisconsin, the “Open for Business” signs that use to hang on the Wisconsin Welcomes You signs were removed, and one State Senator is now asking for them back.

State Senator Dan Feyen, of Fond du Lac sent a letter to Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan asking that the signs be sent to Feyen’s office where he says “would be happy to find places to display the signs in my office and district office to let our business community know that we are still “Open for Business.”

Feyen said he heard reports that the signs were removed on Monday.

“I ran for office to be a champion for economic development and workforce development and I will continue to be a leader advancing policy that is good for business in Wisconsin. If our small businesses succeed, we all succeed.”

Assembly Republicans Extend Olive Branch

Good for them. There is room for compromise and cooperation on a lot of things.

Assembly Republicans in a letter to Gov. Tony Evers Thursday said they would work with him on a host of issues, including income tax reductions and funding two-thirds of K-12 public education, as the Democrat prepares to assemble his first budget.

[…]

Vos acknowledged the heightened chance of a recession affecting the U.S. economy in coming years, arguing the possibility should prompt lawmakers to reduce the size of government and grow the state’s rainy-day fund.

Assembly Republicans wrote they would be willing to compromise on several issues they said Evers mentioned on the campaign trail, such as enhancing internet access, evaluating ways to save money on state-owned buildings, reducing debt payments in the transportation budget, ensuring clean drinking water and preventing homelessness.

[…]

Vos in an interview Thursday with a conservative talk show on 1130 WISN said he and Republicans would not approve more controversial Democratic proposals such as a $15 minimum wage, driver’s licenses for immigrants living in the country illegally, legalizing marijuana, rolling back school voucher programs or expanding abortion rights.

City Leaders Express Regret for Funding Brainstorming Project

I remember casting an askance eye at this when it happened. I don’t remember if I wrote about it. Essentially, they paid $10,000 to have a bunch of college kids brainstorm ideas for our downtown. Of course, they don’t have any grounding in business, finance, etc. It was just a bunch of young adults sitting around saying, “wouldn’t it be cool if there was…” fill in the blank. I’m far more interested in the ideas from people who live and work in our downtown and would directly benefit/lose from the decisions made. Skin in the game and whatnot…

WEST BEND — Members of the Downtown West Bend Business Improvement District expressed some buyer’s remorse when they reviewed some of the ideas the high school and college students generated as part of The Commons group.

“I would just like to echo the thought that I think we overpaid in hindsight for this opportunity and that we should be more careful next time that we consider this sort of brainstorming activity,” Alderman Michael Christian said, who is also a member of the business improvement district.

Officials paid almost $10,000 for the opportunity to host students to develop ideas for improving the downtown. The idea was borne from a meeting during the first months of 2018 when board president Mike Husar requested Economic Development Manager Adam Gitter obtain a record of the vacant spaces, along with the businesses that occupied the buildings in the downtown.

That idea morphed into a more comprehensive project to generate general ideas for improving the downtown.

Hazy sunshine in local government

Here’s my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Wisconsin long ago recognized that transparency in government is critical for good government. As former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel says in the most recent edition of the Wisconsin Public Records Law Compliance Guide, “citizens cannot hold their elected officials accountable in a representative government unless government is performed in the open.” In recognition of that imperative, Wisconsin has one of the best open records laws in the nation.

Wisconsin’s public records statutes are comprehensive and firm. In general, they require that, with rare and specific exceptions, government officials must provide access to any existing government records upon request. Officials do not have to create new records, but they do have to provide them if they exist. The law is great, but as with any law, its utility must be measured by its execution and enforcement.

While looking into different issues, I have had cause to file open records requests with three local governments in recent months. The inconsistent responses reveal how challenging it still is for a Wisconsinite to hold his government accountable when government officials choose to be difficult.

While slightly different, all three of my open records requests asked for “any electronic communication … including emails, official email accounts or personal accounts, SMS, SnapChats, Facebook messages, Google Hangout Chats, iMessages, or any other format in which official business was discussed” to or from specific elected and unelected government officials for a range of dates.

I made my request of the city of West Bend on Dec. 19. I received an immediate acknowledgement of the request. After a couple of days of emails and a phone call clarifying my request, the city allowed me to download a PDF with 1,796 pages of emails to and from every Common Council member and other city officials. With some delay due to the Christmas holidays, I received the file on Dec. 28.

My request to Washington County was made on October 5. Again, I received an immediate response acknowledging my request. It went dark for a little while, but after I sent a reminder on Oct. 12, I was able to speak with the county attorney to clarify my request. He indicated that due to some of the sensitive nature of some of the documents, he would have to redact some information and advised me on the appeals process. Shortly after that conversation, I received an email with the requested emails with a few appropriate redactions on Oct. 15.

In both cases, the city and the county responded quickly, conscientiously, comprehensively, and without expense. The West Bend School District was a different story.

I made my request of the West Bend School District on Sept. 25. I received an immediate response acknowledging the request. On Oct. 3, I received a reply from the superintendent indicating that fulfilling my request would cost between $130 and $280 because the district’s policy is to print all of the emails at 10 cents per page instead of providing them in a digital format. He also advised me to submit my request directly to School Board members for their documents, which I did.

I exchanged a few more emails with the superintendent referencing recent Appeals Court rulings that digital records should be provided in their digital format and the wastefulness of printing thousands of emails when they could be easily transmitted digitally (as the city and county did). My arguments fell on deaf ears with the superintendent advising me the final judgement on Nov. 28 that my request would now cost between $150 and $300.

As for the request made directly to the School Board members, only three of them deigned to even respond to my request and one of them lied about using anything other than official email for district business. As a hint to public officials, there are at least two people involved in any communication. More on that in a later column, perhaps.

What have we learned about the ability for a Wisconsin citizen to peer into the workings of our government?

First, if a government wants to be obstinate, there is not much that a citizen can do about it. While the city of West Bend and Washington County were appropriately responsive and cooperative, the West Bend School District and board members threw up multiple roadblocks including ignoring requests and imposing an unnecessary and exorbitantfees. As a private citizen, all one can do is sue the government at great personal expense or file a complaint with the district attorney or attorney general. Historically, neither agency has ever been aggressive in enforcing open records laws. Government looks out for government.

Second, all three governments are doing a poor job of retaining and making available public records to occur outside of government-provided technology. In our modern age, it is not uncommon for public officials to communicate with citizens, vendors, lobbyists, employees, and others through multiple digital channels including SMS, social media, and various chat technologies. In fact, this is becoming commonplace with the ubiquitousness of personal devices.

If those public officials are using those technologies, they are creating a public record that should be open to public scrutiny for a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, it is far too easy for our government officials to conduct themselves as angels in their official email while hiding their corruption in their personal devices. Every government needs to take the proactive step to implement policies regarding the preservation and retention of public records irrespective of format.

Wisconsin has great laws regarding open records, but they are only as good as government officials are willing to obey and enforce them. We still have work to do to ensure that our government is open and accountable.

Hazy sunshine in local government

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I share my uneven experiences with Open Records Requests with three local governments. Here’s a part:

What have we learned about the ability for a Wisconsin citizen to peer into the workings of our government?

First, if a government wants to be obstinate, there is not much that a citizen can do about it. While the city of West Bend and Washington County were appropriately responsive and cooperative, the West Bend School District and board members threw up multiple roadblocks including ignoring requests and imposing an unnecessary and exorbitant fees. As a private citizen, all one can do is sue the government at great personal expense or file a complaint with the district attorney or attorney general. Historically, neither agency has ever been aggressive in enforcing open records laws. Government looks out for government.

Second, all three governments are doing a poor job of retaining and making available public records to occur outside of government-provided technology. In our modern age, it is not uncommon for public officials to communicate with citizens, vendors, lobbyists, employees, and others through multiple digital channels including SMS, social media, and various chat technologies. In fact, this is becoming commonplace with the ubiquitousness of personal devices.

If those public officials are using those technologies, they are creating a public record that should be open to public scrutiny for a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, it is far too easy for our government officials to conduct themselves as angels in their official email while hiding their corruption in their personal devices. Every government needs to take the proactive step to implement policies regarding the preservation and retention of public records irrespective of format.

Wisconsin has great laws regarding open records, but they are only as good as government officials are willing to obey and enforce them. We still have work to do to ensure that our government is open and accountable.

 

Chickens, Chickens, Everywhere!

I look forward to madcap chicken hijinks for years to come.

Jan. 7, 2019 – West Bend, WI – For the third time in his tenure as Mayor of West Bend Kraig Sadownikow cast the deciding vote and this time it was on the issue of whether to allow chickens in West Bend.

“The property rights topic is important to me,” said Sadownikow. “We allow lots of other types of animals in the community that have less restrictions than chickens do. We have lots of other fowl in the city; most folks will recognize there’s a growing population of turkeys around West Bend and chickens give a great opportunity for education for kids, with the collection of eggs and the number of folks taking advantage of proposed legislation will probably be pretty limited.”

The vote that led to the mayor’s tiebreaker was 4 – 4; Aldermen voting in favor of allowing chickens included aldermen Mike Christian, Andrew Chevalier, Chris Jenkins and Justice Madl.

Alderman opposing chickens included John Butschlick, Rich Kasten, Steve Hoogester, and Roger Kist.

Attorney General Kaul Begins Term with Partisan Attack

Here we go. Keeping it classy.

MADISON, Wis. – New Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul is criticizing Republican lawmakers in his inauguration speech.

Kaul took the oath of office Monday along with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers during a ceremony in a packed state Capitol rotunda.

Kaul delivered a short speech, ripping Republican legislators for passing lame-duck legislation in December that weakened both his and Evers’ offices.

Kaul said such a move was unprecedented and was designed to hinder both him and Evers. He warned Republicans the state Justice Department’s priorities will still shift during his tenure with a sharper focus on environmental and consumer protection.

Chickens Come Home to Roost in West Bend

I know, I know… on the headline… groan. I couldn’t help myself. In any case, the West Bend Common Council will be taking up changes to the chicken ordinance tomorrow. The Washington County Insider has the details:

Jan. 6, 2019 – West Bend, WI – Here we go again. Monday night, Jan. 7 the West Bend Common Council will address the chicken issue as aldermen vote on changes to the ordinance and whether to finally allow chickens in the community.

The issue was tabled at the Dec. 17, 2018 meeting. Aldermen had some questions and there was extensive discussion. Click HERE to read more and watch the meeting video.

Changes were made to the proposed ordinance (see below) or click HERE for item 8. Monday, another vote will be taken on the issue.

The changes would essentially allow city residents to keep up to four hens (no roosters) in a coop on their property after getting a permit from the city. The City would notify neighbors of the permit request – presumably to give them the opportunity to protest against the permit if they want.

For the life of me, I have no idea why people get so exercised by chickens. This seems to be have been a rolling controversy in community after community as some city residents want to grow their own food. Chickens are just a step beyond having your own vegetable garden. But controversial it is…

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if people want chickens. It is their property and they can do what they want with it as long as it does not interfere with someone else’s property rights. We already have nuisance laws, so the need to license and regulate chicken coops seems idiotic and a waste of taxpayer money to me. There will only be a handful of people who actually try to raise chickens (I’m sure several will try, realize what a pain it is, and quit shortly thereafter). If it becomes a problem, then deal with the individuals accordingly.

Citizens Resist Boulder’s Gun Registry

Good for them. Now they need to vote the fascists who passed this ordinance out of office.

BOULDER, Colorado — Boulder’s newly enacted “assault weapons” ban is meeting with stiff resistance from its “gun-toting hippies,” staunch liberals who also happen to be devoted firearms owners.

Only 342 “assault weapons,” or semiautomatic rifles, were certified by Boulder police before the Dec. 31 deadline, meaning there could be thousands of residents in the scenic university town of 107,000 in violation of the sweeping gun-control ordinance.

“I would say the majority of people I’ve talked to just aren’t complying because most people see this as a registry,” said Lesley Hollywood, executive director of the Colorado Second Amendment group Rally for Our Rights. “Boulder actually has a very strong firearms community.”

The ordinance, approved by the city council unanimously, banned the possession and sale of “assault weapons,” defined as semiautomatic rifles with a pistol grip, folding stock, or ability to accept a detachable magazine. Semiautomatic pistols and shotguns are also included.

Current owners were given until the end of the year to choose one of two options: Get rid of their semiautomatics by moving them out of town, disabling them, or turning them over to police — or apply for a certificate with the Boulder Police Department, a process that includes a firearm inspection, background check and $20 fee.

Bully Burke

A shakedown as old as government.

The criminal complaint targeting Chicago Ald. Ed Burke reads like a cliched crime novel: Influential alderman squeezes restaurant executives to benefit his law business, delicately at first, over lunch at a private wood-paneled country club. Federal agents locate the alderman via a black Crown Victoria, his riding-around car, in the parking lot.

The alderman is known for his silver coiffure, pinstriped suits and pocket squares. His three-story brick home on the Southwest Side is landlocked by railroad tracks and industry, strip malls and bungalows — but protected by a tall wrought-iron fence with a locked gate.

He is untouchable. Until now.

Burke, of Chicago’s 14th Ward, faces one count of attempted extortion. The U.S. Department of Justice accuses him of holding up city permits and slow-walking a restaurant renovation in his ward until the company agreed to hire Burke’s law firm, Klafter & Burke, for property tax work.

Madison to Fine Businesses for Leaving Doors Open

Do you begin to see how the Global Warming/Climate Change jihad is all about controlling people? It can be used as justification for all sorts of Nanny State lunacy.

Madison businesses that leave their doors or windows open too long while running air conditioners could be fined under an ordinance to be introduced next week in the local fight against climate change.

Except in emergencies or when people or goods are going into or out of a business, “it shall be unlawful to keep open any door or window of a building or structure with a commercial use while an air conditioner is operating,” according to the proposed ordinance authored by Ald. Ledell Zellers, 2nd District.

The fine for a first-offense fine would be $50, rising to $100 for a second offense. Any third or subsequent offenses would cost $250, and “each day or portion thereof such violation continues shall be considered a separate offense,” the ordinance says.

Conservative leadership works

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.

Evers Floats Making 1st Time Drunk Driving Offense a Felony

In a wide-ranging article by the Associated Press comes this little gem.

Evers told WISC-TV that he’s open to criminalizing first-offense drunken driving, something he also said during the campaign. Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense is a traffic infraction and not a crime.

“We have to find ways to make that first offense more meaningful to the offenders so they don’t offend again or don’t offend the first time,” Evers said. “Whether that’s making it a felony or not, I’m not sure.”

There are a lot of folks who think that Wisconsin should criminalize a 1st time drunk driving offense, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest that it should be a felony. So Evers would put someone in prison, deprive them of their vote, and make them marginally employable for the rest of their lives for a first time drunk driving offense? That’s pretty harsh.

Of course, if you read the whole article, you will realize that Evers says a lot of wacky stuff with little thought behind it. His statements reveal that he has little grasp of how state government actually works and has not invested much thought in many issues. Does he know the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor? How does he reconcile criminalizing 1st time drunk driving offenses with reducing the prison population?

No. I suspect he just says stuff without the burdensome process of thinking.

 

Conservative leadership works

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. For those who say that I never have anything good to say about government, well…

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.

Read the rest by picking up a copy or signing up online!