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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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County Faces $350,000 Unexpected Repair Bill

Marinette County Board’s Finance and Insurance Committee will meet in special closed session at 1 p.m. Friday, March 21 “to consider any and all matters related to acts by businesses under s. 560.15 which, if discussed in public could adversely affect the business, its employees or former employees; to-wit: Anonymous Financial Complaints.”

No other details were given in the meeting notice. The agenda includes the possibility of action after returning to open session. Finance and Insurance Committee members are Supervisors Melissa Christiansen, Kathy Just, Don Pazynski, Connie Seefeldt and County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder.

At the end of its regular monthly meeting on Monday, March 17 the committee went into closed session for the same purpose.

The big item at the March 17 meeting was authorization for Information Services Director Larry Schultz to spend up to $350,000 of unbudgeted funds to correct unexpected problems with the interconnected telephone/computer system that serves the County Courthouse, Law Enforcement Center, and Health and Human Services Building in Marinette.

After explanations by Schultz and Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison the committee authorized spending $347,000 for “Cisco” components including switches, cables, various types of modules and other items, along with installation and service agreements needed to restore the county’s communications/computer system to reliable operation.

There had been some problems for a week or so with telephone connections, but it apparently all came to a head last week, while County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder was on vacation.

Mattison told of trying to talk to a witness by telephone in preparation for a trial, but the phone kept kicking out as the conversation got going.

She was a bit nervous. She said on Tuesday she has a doctor testifying by telephone for a jury trial. She hopes the telephone to the courtroom does not fail.

“In today’s world, we can’t operate without a phone or a computer,” she declared.

Schultz had some people from CDW-G look into the problem and it was discovered that nearly all the switches are bad. CDW-G is a firm that provides computer and telephone components to the state and its municipalities in partnership with Wisconsin’s Bureau of Procurement Vendor Net System.

Mattison explained some years ago (in 2007), under the previous County Administration, switches for the computer/telephone system were purchased from E-Bay. “Those switches did not hold up,” she said. They should have lasted at least 10 years. Instead they began failing all at once, more than three years short of their anticipated life span.

Schultz at one point in the conversation showed two of the switches that actually have the same serial number. There may be more.

Mattison likened buying this type of equipment from E-Bay to buying a “Rolex” watch from a street vendor in Mexico.

Schultz said the Cisco representative offered him an excellent discount because of the problem the county was facing, but even so, the first set of components, to redo the system in the courthouse, will cost $200,000. He had to order on Friday, March 14 or wait an entire additional week to get the rapidly failing system fixed. He only had $80,000 in his budget for replacing switches.

Normally it is the Finance Committee that approves purchases of this type, and decides where the money will come from. Mattison explained the Executive Committee has authority to act in this type of emergency, but Schroeder, who heads that group as County Board Chair, was on vacation and couldn’t call a meeting.

But Schultz would lose that additional week if he waited, so he had already ordered the first $200,000 of components by the time the Finance Committee met on Monday. He said the components will be here before the weekend and installation can begin on Friday afternoon. He explained the work has to be done outside of business hours. Until then, the county departments will make do with a failing system.

There still is need for switches and other component replacements for the Law Enforcement Center and Human Services building.

Schroeder asked if Cisco is the only vendor that provides the Equipment Marinette County needs.

Schultz said the system is “kind of standardized,” and at an average of $24,000 per unit they are paying well below the state price.

Schultz said the switches hit by lightning last summer were already replaced, so these failures will not affect the courthouse video conferencing.

“How much have we spent on this type of situation?” asked Supervisor Connie Seefeldt, adding, “It must be in the millions!”

Finance Director Pat Kass wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think it was that much.

Schultz said the phones “go robotic” several times a day, and other times either the caller cannot be heard, or vice versa. They had engineers working on the problem before Cisco was called in.

To questions from the committee, Schultz said there is backup, and the county would never be without 911, but with the current situation, officers on the road could be without communication.

“We need to get this done as soon as possible,” Schroeder said. “That computer and telephone system is the backbone of the courthouse.” But he asked where the money could come from.

Kass said Information Services had $357,000 in its capital equipment fund at the end of 2013. He recommended using that, and capitalizing the expense to be charged back to other county departments over a 10-year period. he explained Information Services operates like an internal business that does not go on the tax roll directly but charges other county departments for the services it provides.

“Is this what you want to spend it on?” Seefeldt asked Schultz.

“No, but we only had $80,000 budgeted to replace these,” Schultz replied.

“I feel kind of confident there will be no more major catastrophes,” Schultz said when Pazynski asked if his crystal ball anticipated other significant problems in the near future. he repeated these switches were purchased from E-Bay, and lasted nearly seven years instead of the anticipated 10, “so I guess we got lucky.”

“From a business perspective, we have no choice,”Pazynski declared. Everyone else agreed, and motion to capitalize the expenditure from the IS funds as Kass recommended was unanimously approved. Kass said they in effect they were taking the cash and converting it into another asset to make it more productive.

Christiansen wondered about the Highway Department at Peshtigo and county facilities in Niagara. Schultz said with everything happening on Friday afternoon he didn’t have a chance to run up there. There could be one of the faulty switches at each location. The Pembine and Crivitz shops do not have them, and some areas still have good switches,Schultz said. Kass said if other switches do need to be replaced, that money will have to come from contingency. Pazynski felt if there are chances of more switches failing they should be changed now, when the rice is $13,000 to $15,000 each instead of the regular price.

In more ordinary business Kass reported he had invested some of the county’s $3.5 million reserves at 3.5 percent interest, some for four years at 2.7 percent, and some for five years on a callable basis at 2.85 percent, plus a one year CD at .8 of a percent. Kass said he has to make sure the county has funds available for times like this, when they need the $370,000.

Carryovers from 2013 being put into the 2014 included $11,000 from personal care equipment and materials were transferred for computer equipment purchased in December of 2013.

There was $13,870 left in Corporation Counsel’s account from the original $40,000 allocated for legal fees in the AFSCME case, and that was carried over to 2014. That case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court. The library account had a surplus of $67,000 that has been carried over for implementation of the WIPFLI study in 2014. Seefeldt noted the library system had money left because they had been unable to keep help, particularly at the outlying libraries. She hopes that problem will be taken care of with implementation of the wages recommended by WIPFLI.

Christiansen said she had a number of phone calls from people wanting information about the county’s health insurance, particularly in regard to deductibles and out of pocket costs. Kass said some things had changed and people weren’t notified.

“We hired a consultant and we need to know exactly what he is doing,” Seefeldt declared. That subject is to be on the committee agenda for its meeting at 1 p.m. on Monday,April 7.


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