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September 17, 2019

8/31/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our View
Oneida County's Famine Follies
Gregg Walker and Richard Moore
Publisher and Columnist

Back about 1740, when a potato famine hit Ireland, a prominent philanthropist in the Irish village of Maynooth decided to do something good for starving village farmers: she put them to work building a gigantic and ornate stone structure, and paid them by giving them food for free.

The secret was, the structure had no purpose other than to give the starving farmers their dignity. Their work meant the food was no handout.

A century later, when an even worse potato famine hit, the government took the idea and replicated it nationwide. They put starving Irish men and women and children to work on a plethora of meaningless projects and paid them with food.

They built bridges to nowhere, piers in the middle of bogs, and just plain weird structures - those resembling bottles and pyramids and Corinthian columns. Few had any purpose, but the government happily employed the hapless Irish citizenry to build them.

They became known as the Irish Famine Follies.

These days, closer to home, we have the Oneida County Famine Follies. The county has decided it needs to pay its workers wads of new cash, and so to find that cash they have begun to search for the follies - you know, those programs that really aren't necessary - and cut them.

So far, though they bring up this program or that, supervisors haven't found many follies to cut. We doubt they will, so we thought we might try to help them. Here are just the most obvious Oneida County Follies, programs the county should cut in a heartbeat.

Number one on our list is the UW-Extension. The county could save $200,000 a year by axing it.

The Extension, which was founded to "extend the boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state," long ago outlived its usefulness.

In reality, our universities, community colleges, and technical schools have pretty much expanded to the boundaries of the state, making the UW Extension a relic. In our area, we have Nicolet College which can more than handle everything the UW-Extension can.

None of this is to denigrate any of the Extension programs or the people who run them. It's always nice to have someone teach us how to make cranberry jam or to become a master gardener, but surely these programs should be run in the private sector or sponsored by Nicolet if there truly is a demand.

The North Central Regional Planning Commission is another folly, and so is zoning. Zoning director Karl Jennrich told the zoning committee they could just get out of the business of centralized land-use government control, except for the shorelands, and let towns do general zoning if they want.

That's a great idea, and it would bring back real local control. Some say towns could not afford to do zoning on their own, but the county could reduce the tax levy by the amount of money saved by getting out of the zoning business, and those towns who want zoning could raise their own levies, or shift levy spending, to pay for it.

The towns would also collect the permit fees and other revenues that the county now collects.

We could go on - don't get us started on land and water conservation - but, the point is, in all these funding opportunities discussions, the county hasn't shown it's serious about really cutting spending.

At a recent zoning meeting, supervisor Jack Sorensen brought up land information director Mike Romportl, who is apparently in favor of higher taxes, and said Mr. Romportl had asked whether supervisors had the will to vote for a wheel tax.

Mr. Sorensen said he would not vote for such a tax, and then he asked the right question: When are supervisors going to bite the bullet and get serious about cutting?

He's right. The conservative economist Milton Friedman often said political leaders should not worry about the tax side of the budget, which would take care of itself if those officials would focus like a laser on the spending side of things.

Taxes exist only for one purpose, in other words, and that's to pay for the spending the government does. Responsible government spends only what is necessary to achieve the core functions of government, and then taxes accordingly.

If officials focus on taxes first, they lose sight of that reality. They either raise taxes and spend too much for programs and services they don't need - sucking that money out of the private sector - or they cut taxes too much and have to borrow to pay for necessary items.

So the county's very first task, before it considers any taxes, is to determine just what spending is needed and then see how they can get the revenues to pay for it.

Certainly there are obvious core functions that the county must fund and should fund fully: Social services, public health, law enforcement, highways, to name four critical areas. There are also support departments, such as finance and legal and the clerk and the treasurer, that are also necessary.

But most other programs should be assumed to be an Oneida County Folly until proven otherwise.

To be sure, once low-hanging fruit like the UW-Extension is plucked from the taxing tree, there are likely programs and proposals within critically-needed departments that can also get cut or nixed.

For example, some supervisors still want a new highway facility at a cost of more than $10 million to taxpayers, even though the county has already settled on a more sensible route of spending a lot less, maybe only $3 or $4 million, to upgrade the current facility.

It would be another of Oneida County's Famine Follies to build a new facility. Mr. Sorensen, though he said he wanted to cut spending, is apparently for this folly and referred to a proposal to spend $2 million in spending next year on upgrades as a Band-Aid.

But it's not a Band-Aid. It's exactly what the county decided to do when the Kwik Trip deal fell through. That spending, plus some more in other years, will result in a durable building that will last as long as a new highway facility, and at a much lower cost.

So spending $2 million next year to upgrade the existing building isn't a Band-Aid and it isn't foolish spending; it will save taxpayers millions in the years to come. We think Mr. Sorensen should take his own advice.

So far, we don't see anybody else taking that advice, either. Instead, it's one folly after another - master gardeners, software for zoning staff to police impervious surfaces in the shorelands (this is a great sign that zoning staff members don't have enough to do and the department should be downsized or, better yet, eliminated), policing piers where the county has no actual jurisdiction (ditto), paying the regional planning commission to tell us how to live our lives, conjuring up juicy dreams about new highway buildings, and on and on.

After all, Oneida County's bureaucrats are demanding to be fed, and don't dare suggest abandoning the county's follies to do so. Unfortunately for us, it's the taxpayers who would be served up as lunch.

Instead of supervisors having the will to raise taxes, supervisors should have the will and strength to stand up to those bureaucrats and end Oneida's County's Famine Follies once and for all. These follies are as absurd as they were almost two centuries ago in Ireland.

At least back then, people were really starving. In today's version, it will be the taxpayers who will be starving.

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