The voters of Washington County will be choosing their first ever County Executive next week. The County Board voted last year to change the county’s form of government from a County Administrator, in which the executive function is performed by an administrator hired by the county board, to a County Executive, in which the executive function is performed by an elected County Executive who represents a separate, co-equal branch of government.
The voters are blessed with two good choices. Josh Shoemann is the current County Administrator. Adam Gitter is the Economic Development Manager for the City of West Bend. Both men are conservative. Both men are veterans. Both men are career government bureaucrats seeking their first elected office. Both are promising to hold the line on taxes and spending.
On the issues, they differ on two primary points. First, Gitter wants to rescind fees for county parks. A couple of years ago, the county implemented a fee structure for people to enter county parks. In the past, the parks did not have an entrance fee. Gitter’s argument is that the people pay taxes for the parks and should not have to pay a fee to go in them. Shoemann, who advocated for and supports the fees, says that using fees for some things helps keep taxes down. Both are right.
This is an issue on which I can go either way. Generally speaking, I don’t mind if there is a fee for things that not everyone uses. The people who use it should bear the brunt of the costs. On the other hand, we have seen where governments will implement fees and still keep raising taxes. What’s the point of fees then? Furthermore, there is a philosophical justification for the notion that we pay taxes for our county to maintain parks and that should include free and open access. Again, I’m somewhat indifferent on the issue It is an esoteric discussion that has little bearing on my life. But this is the issue that has garnered the most energy in this campaign.
The second issue on which they disagree is on the county sales tax.Washington County implemented a sales tax many years ago on an “emergency” basis to pay for some specific capital needs like a new radio system for the Sheriff. Once those things were paid off, the county kept the sales tax and now uses it for whatever they want. I have long advocated that the county should repeal the sales tax. The reason it was implemented is no longer valid and they should repeal it. If, after it is repealed, the county wants to implement a new sales tax to fund county government, then let’s have that debate. As it is, the county sales tax is the greatest bait and switch ever foisted on the people of Washington County.
On this issue, Gitter calls the sales tax a “slush fund” and has advocated repealing or reforming it. Gitter is right. Shoemann argues that the sales tax revenue has become too integral to the county’s finances and repealing it would blow a $4 million hole in the budget. Yes, it would. That has been part of the insipid nature of the sales tax revenue in that once the County Board got it, they wouldn’t let it go. There is no reason that we could not work toward the goal repealing the sales tax over time. At least Gitter wants to try and will push in the right direction.
Primarily because of the sales tax, I voted for Adam Gitter. There is a lesser reason that irks me a little too.
Shoemann has seen a wave of support from the current insiders in the county. The current county board chair, former chair, several county board members, and a couple of local politicians have come out in support of Shoemann. This makes sense and is a credit to Shoemann. In his role as County Administrator, he has worked with these people over years and earned their trust. That’s great. But there is what we used to call a “good ol’ boys” network in Washington County. In our modern nomenclature, we call it the swamp. That’s what this is. One of the reasons I advocated for a County Executive form of government was so that the county could have an elected, independent executive branch. If the executive is that tight with the board and part of the club, then what’s the point? I’m not saying that we should have open warfare between the branches of government, but the friction created by skepticism and independence is part of the balance of powers that makes for good government.
Finally on a side note, it is unfortunate that these local races have been drowned out by the presidential primaries and coronavirus. One of the fascinating things about this race that the county’s local lefty contingent has all lined up behind Gitter. As a quirk of politics, I find myself on the same side. It is curious because Gitter is an avowed conservative who has been successful in his role at the City of West Bend with conservative leadership. In reading the lefties’ writings, it looks like it comes down to two issues. First, the liberals hate park fees. As a matter of philosophy, they oppose park fees and believe that the parks should be free to everyone. Gitter agrees with that philosophy. Second, the lefties just hate Shoemann and don’t really know Gitter. It is a testament to Shoemann’s conservatism that he is so reviled by the local lefty establishment. I hope that Gitter can earn their enmity should he be elected.
All said, the voters can’t make a bad choice for county executive, but because of a couple of issues, I voted for Adam Gitter.