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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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County Okays Borrowing For First Step In Five Year Plan

At a monthly meeting that may have set a new record for brevity, Marinette County Board on Tuesday, July 30, approved moving forward with a $9.44 million bond issue to finance the first year of an ambitious $52 million 5-year capital improvement plan for the county. The proposed bond issue, with a 15-year payback, will add approximately $20 a year per $100,000 assessed value to the county property tax levy.

Little discussion preceded the vote. The only opposing votes were cast by supervisors Alice Baumgarten of Marinette and Clancy Whiting of Pembine. The 28 to two vote far surpassed the three quarters majority, 23 of the 30 supervisors, required for the motion to pass. Administrator Ellen Sorensen noted the board will vote again on the bond issue in 2014, when it is time to approve the bonding itself, but that vote requires only a simple majority.

In discussion before the vote, Supervisor Ken Keller commented that if they wait to do the needed work price increases will cost as much as they will pay in interest for the loans. He noted the price of drywall alone has tripled since last fall.

“There is also the fact that if you continue to cash flow these projects it will be years, if ever, before most of them are done,” Sorensen added.

County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder said this is a good time to borrow because interest rates are low. The low interest rates also have resulted in lower income to the county from its invested funds, and this loss of income was complicated by some events that started “back when times were good.” At that time, County Board had lowered the property tax, but not long after that, with tax rates unusually low, the state “froze” the tax level by imposing levy increase limits. “Now we’re stuck,” Schroeder said. “Our roads are deteriorating and they’re not going to get any better. We need to take care of infrastructure or there will be no economic growth.”

Supervisor Ted Sauve said a question often asked of him is why they couldn’t use the county’s hefty unrestricted fund balance to pay for the capital improvements.

Much of the fund balance Sauve referred to came from sales of the old Pine View Health Care Center and Marinette General Hospital/Bay Area Medical Center (BAMC). Pine View was sold to a private business and continues to operate. BAMC was sold to the Board of Directors and continues to operate as a not-for profit community owned entity to serve the health care needs of citizens of Marinette and Menominee counties. Money from the sales remains in special reserve funds, from which interest is to be used to reduce the property tax rate each year.

“Once we spend from our savings there’s no getting it back,” Schroeder explained. “It’s illegal to levy taxes for the purpose of saving. Interest rates may go up in the future, and we will be losing interest money and hamper future county boards. We’d be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The motion to move ahead with the bonding then passed by the 28 to two vote.

Questioned after the meeting on why the capital improvements are not being financed with the county sales tax, Schroeder said a portion of the sales tax proceeds are still being used for capital improvements and debt retirement. Most of it, about $900,000 a year, goes to pay off interest on existing debts.

Asked if there are plans to come back next year for another bond issue to pay for the remainder of the $52 million 5-year capital improvement program, with another addition to the property tax, Schroeder said future borrowing remains to be seen. He said they may decide to hold off on some of the work. The economy could improve with resulting increases in interest and sales tax income. He said they could not do a single larger borrowing because of “arbitrage” laws that require government entities to spend borrowed money within specified periods of time, generally a year or two.

Moving on to other business, the board approved an additional County Forester position as recommended by the Forestry and Parks Committee and again at an 8:30 a.m. Personnel Committee meeting that morning. In response to a question on cost of the new job, Sorensen said it is not a cost at all. The new position, budgeted at $81,511 a year with benefits, will set up timber sales that will generate an additional $460,000 a year in revenue for the county. The Forestry Department proposed the new position because the existing crew has not been able to meet the allowable harvest of certain timber species for sustainable management of the 231,000 acre Marinette County Forest. The county loses approximately $578.29 for every allowable acre not harvested, and according to WDNR data, an average county forester can set up approximately 1,000 acres a year for timber harvest, which generates an average income of $520.93 per acre.

Those were the only two votes of the day after approval of the agenda, except for the motion to adjourn, which came at 10 a.m., approximately an hour after the meeting started, making this perhaps the shortest regular monthly County Board meeting in Marinette County History.

Sorensen reported she has reappointed Jim Shea, Pat Ravet and Todd Stepien to the Board of Adjustment. Shea’s term expires on June 30, 2015 and terms of Ravet and Stepien expire on June 30, 2016.

Certificates of appreciation were presented to retired county employees - Brian Hartnell, who had worked for the Sheriff’s Department for 13 years, and Terry Zimmerman, a former Sheriff’s Deputy and later Director of Communications, who had been a county employee for 24 years.

Bay Area Medical Center (BAMC) President and CEO Ed Harding presented a detailed annual report. To questions from supervisors, he added some predictions on the impact “Obama care” will have on individuals and the health care industry. Harding said BAMC has been having some economic hard times, much like other businesses and industries in this era. BAMC income from operations is running $10 million behind budget, mostly because of an increase in bad debts and use of Community Care. The hospital is not for sale, but is seeking a partner, Harding said. The new partner may have some seats on the Board of Directors, but Harding pledged they will retain local control, and BAMC will continue its role of caring for Marinette and Menominee County residents whether they can afford to pay or not.

During time for public comment at the start of the meeting, Supervisor Nick Lakari stepped to the podium “to discuss how events unfolded during time for public comment at the April County Board meeting and what has transpired since then.”

As a background the April meeting agenda had included a resolution supported by three to two vote of the Economic Development and Tourism Committee, to cut the size of the Marinette County Tourism Alliance from 15 to seven members. Three of those members would have been appointed by mayors of the three cities in the county, two at-large members were to be appointed by the County Administrator, and two members would represent the Economic Development and Tourism Committee, as they do now. That proposal had been worked out at a series of “work group” sessions which were not subject to normal open meetings law requirements and public notices, and details had not been provided to current Alliance members prior to the County Board meeting.

John Guarisco, a former County Board Supervisor, president of Crivitz Recreation Association, and member of the Tourism Alliance, objected to the proposed reorganization, which he suggested would destroy the purpose of the Alliance and provide no guarantees that any of the county’s major tourist areas would even be represented.

Supervisor Al Sauld of rural Niagara moved to suspend the rules to allow Guarisco more than the normal five minutes allowed to each speaker under public comment, and to permit an exchange of questions and answers between Guarisco and the board. That motion was seconded by Supervisor Mike Behnke and approved, but on voice vote and not with the roll call vote that should have been required on a motion to suspend the rules.

After considerable discussion, the board by 25 to 4 vote sent the Alliance reorganization proposal back to committee with instructions to return in June. Discussion conveyed a clear message from supervisors that the Alliance itself should be consulted on the issue. That motion, made by Supervisor Kathy Just and seconded by Supervisor Russ Bauer, was approved with only four supervisors opposed - Lakari, Economic Development Committee Chair Ken Casper, Economic Development and Tourism Committee member Al Mans, and Joe Policello. Supervisor Connie Seefeldt was absent and excused.

The Alliance subsequently voted overwhelmingly in favor of retaining the 15 members, and asked that several existing vacancies be filled. Supervisor Shirley Kaufman, who with Lakari represents the Economic Development and Tourism Committee on the Alliance, said after the “wakeup call” attendance at Alliance meetings would be better and there would be quorums.

Most Alliance members, except the two county supervisors, are unpaid volunteers who serve at their own expense. Some vacant positions on the Alliance were subsequently filled, and Guarisco was elected Alliance chair, replacing Lakari, who had held that position.

The Economic Development and Tourism Committee subsequently decided not to bring their resolution back to the County Board, and Alliance membership remains as it was.

The current contract with Marinette Area Chamber of Commerce through which services of a Tourism Administrator had been provided will end on Dec. 31, and the Economic Development and Tourism Committee decided to hire a part time Tourism Director to work as a county employee. That selection process has just started. Guarisco, as Alliance chair, is to have input on interviews for the position.

“The results are what they are, and those of us involved with that process are moving on,” Lakari said.

He and several other county officials, including Sorensen and Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison had objected after the April meeting to the way the public comment issue was handled, and cautioned County Board against suspending rules in future to allow that type of open discussion.

During his public comments at this month’s meeting, Lakari said Sauld had told him Guarisco approached him before the start of the April meeting and asked him to make the motion to suspend the rules. Sauld agreed, and did so. Lakari said Behnke told him he had seconded that motion to get the issue on the floor for discussion.

“Most, if not all, of the County Board were caught off guard,” Lakari declared. “From my point of view, Mr. Guarisco manipulated one County Board member, and that in turn manipulated the entire County Board.”

Next speaker under public comment was John Gaffney, Pound Town Board Supervisor, who objected to the lack of snow plowing last winter, and to the county’s decision to not plow between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“Lots of us work in Green Bay or Appleton, and we have to leave for work long before 6 a.m.,” he declared. “It is ridiculous that highways are not plowed so we can get to work safely!”

Gaffney added that by 6 a.m., most of the town roads have been plowed, and the towns then have to go back and reopen the intersections that the county plowed shut.

Since the rules had not been suspended, there was no exchange of information or comments with either of the two speakers.

As the meeting drew to a close less than an hour after it began, Seefeldt reported briefly on a resolution that may or may not be brought up at the approaching Wisconsin Counties Association annual conference, which will be held in Madison this year.

Seefeldt, who serves on the WCA County Organization and Personnel Committee, said at a recent meeting they reviewed several resolutions from various counties to decide which should go on to the full WCA conference. Among the resolutions was one from Dane County that advocates giving local government the option to engage in collective bargaining. There was not anyone on the committee in favor of this, Seefeldt said, and it was not approved for presentation at the conference. But, Seefeldt said, there is some question that it may come up at the conference any way. She said if approved and enacted as law it would mean islands of collective bargaining could be set up throughout the state. She feels collective bargaining is not necessary, and counties can simply talk to their employees as Marinette County has done.

Supervisor Bill Walker, who chairs the Forestry, Parks, Outdoor Recreation and Public Lands Committee, referred to a complimentary letter in the board packet, and suggested it is “worth reading.”

Sauve told the board he has been trying to get information on plans for development of Green Island, and learned there were some ecological concerns raised by a Native American tribe. He hoped to have more concrete information for the next meeting.


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