The Oneida County zoning committee has rejected on a 3-1 vote an idea to charge a fee to every homeowner in the county with a private onsite wastewater treatment system (POWTS) - essentially septic systems and holding tanks.
There are 22,268 such systems in the county, a third of which, or about 7,500, are up for inspection or pumping every year. If the county is charged a $15 fee every three years when a system must be inspected or pumped, the county could reap $112,000 a year.
That looked pretty good to the county's "funding opportunities" committee, which is searching for ways to raise employee wages by as much as $800,000 a year, and so committee members asked the zoning committee to evaluate the fee idea, along with other possible revenue increases and the potential removal of non-mandated programs.
At a recent zoning committee meeting, zoning director Karl Jennrich explained the idea.
"This has been discussed on and off over the years," Jennrich said. "The reason this is being brought up is that some counties are charging a fee to basically administer the state-mandated program that requires a septic system to be pumped or inspected once every three years."
Oneida County does not charge a fee, Jennrich said, though he said the county probably has the most POWTS in a county program.
"We have a lot of them," he said. "As of today we have 22, 268 POWTS on the maintenance program. Divide that by three and that's how many notices we send out every year. So that's about 7,500 cards a year, but that's the first notice. Second notice, there's 2,000 to 3,000. And then after that, 200 citations."
Supervisor Jack Sorensen asked if the county could get the sanitary companies that do the pumping to collect the fee and transfer it to the county, but Jennrich said the pumpers don't like that idea.
"You could, but all I've heard is the pushback from the Liquid Waste Haulers Association," Jennrich replied. "They don't want to be the tax collectors for Oneida County."
But then again, Jennrich said he didn't want that job, either.
"I don't want to do the billing because all of a sudden Oneida County becomes the tax collector," he said.
The county could just put it on the tax bill as an assessment, Jennrich said.
"What some municipalities are doing - and I would have to work with the treasurer - is a special assessment on the property tax bill," he said.
But that entire conversation merely exposes what a mandatory fee for POWTS owners really is, committee chairman Scott Holewinski said.
"So it's just a tax increase, that's what this is," Holewinski said.
Yes, Jennrich said, but it would serve a useful purpose.
"That's what people say," he said. "They say why don't you just charge me more in taxes. But it's used to offset the expenses for the department."
Nonetheless, Holewinski said, it's not the route the department or the county should be taking.
"You're just switching taxes around and putting them somewhere else," he said. "We should be eliminating some of these programs."
Supervisor Mike Timmons pointed out that sanitary districts that provide sewer and water charge for usage and also assess taxes.
"In sanitary districts they pay for the usage, plus they get nailed on taxes," Timmons said. "And the sanitary districts are billed separately, on their tax bill and for their usage."
Jennrich reminded the committee that the fee would not be applied to those in sanitary districts, only on those homeowners with POWTS.
"So it's not across the board every property," he said.
But Jennrich conceded that probably a majority of properties in the county did have a POWTS.
Up the ladder, down the slippery slop
Holewinski described the application of such fees as a "ladder."
"You know you start this - the government needs more money and they say, 'Oh, raise that fee from $5 a year to $15 a year because they've been paying it and we can justify it,'" he said. "And then pretty soon we'll start charging for private wells because it's everybody's water and they're sucking it out of the ground, so we'll charge for that. It's just more taxes."
Instead of thinking about ways to raise revenue, Holewinski said, the county should be thinking about what services it can jettison.
"So if we need money here, just do it through the budget system rather than add tire taxes and all this stuff to hide it," he said.
Sorensen said land information director Mike Romportl was still talking wheel taxes at a recent funding opportunities committee meeting.
"Mike Romportl brought it up and said the question would be, 'Do the county supervisors have the will to go to a wheel tax?'" Sorenson said. "And I just looked at him and said, basically, 'Hell no, I'm not going to vote for something like that.'"
Supervisor Ted Cushing said budget cuts alone would not achieve what Oneida County is looking to do.
"This whole process that the county is going through has to be a combination of cuts and revenue enhancers," he said. "A combination. It can't just be cuts."
Cushing said Chicago charges $150 for a mandated city sticker on residents' cars and it's a $500 fine for not having it.
"Would I complain if somebody said I would have to spend $25 a year for living in Oneida County?" he asked. "I wouldn't complain personally, and I'm not loaded. Even if it's 10 bucks, 10 bucks isn't going to break the bank. But this has nothing to do with the wheel tax."
Holewinski returned to his theme that the county would simply be hiding tax increases in the nooks and crannies of fee schedules.
"All this is is, Oneida County needs so much money and we're trying to camouflage it and say we'll charge a fee over here," he said. "The bottom line is, we should downsize what we're doing if we can't afford it. But we shouldn't be finding ways to get everybody. It's a tax increase. We should set our budget and then we cut services we don't need. That's how I see it."
Sorensen wanted to know if the county was really willing to bite the bullet and make some serious spending cuts.
"And that will be a fight on the county board floor," he said. "Some of the cuts that I'm thinking about will have every bureaucrat in the county lining up, saying, 'You can't do that.'"
The zoning committee had already nixed the idea of saving money by doing away with general zoning and subdivision and floodplain ordinances, and supervisors and staff said permit fees couldn't be raised because the county had only recently done so. But Cushing said the POWTS fee idea should be considered, and tossing it out with the others would send a clear message to the funding opportunities committee.
"So if we throw it all out, we're saying to the funding opportunities committee that planning and zoning can't make a contribution to the issue," Cushing said.
Cushing said $112,000 a year was a big number in the county's quest to come up with $800,000 a year through savings, cuts, or revenue increases.
"We're looking for $800,000 and 10 percent of that is $80,000," he said.
Holewinski cautioned that the county could be headed down a slippery slope - again.
"Years ago when we had the jail paid off, the county board decided not to take that off the tax roll because they wanted the employees to have a soft landing," he said. "So we are continuing to pay for the jail and now we have the same problem here - we figure the employees need a soft landing, so how much more can we tax somewhere."
The bottom line, Holewinski said: "Get rid of services, don't keep raising taxes."
Cushing said the county could be headed to a scenario of borrowing if serious revenue increases and spending cuts weren't achieved.
"We're obviously not going to get more money from the state," he said. "They are going to continue with their restrictions. Bundle and borrow is how you could raise the levy. Right now that's going to be the only way to raise the levy. I'd hate to see us get into the bundle-and-borrow routine."
Holewinski made a motion to reject the idea of mandatory POWTS fees, and that motion prevailed 3-1, with Holewinski, Sorensen, and Timmons voting yes, and Cushing voting no. Supervisor Bully Fried was absent.
Abolish zoning? Never mind
Another idea was to just get rid of zoning altogether, or at least a large part of it, but the zoning committee didn't take it seriously.
Jennrich said he had pointed out to the funding opportunities committee that the county didn't have to be in the general zoning business if it didn't want to be.
"As part of the funding opportunities committee, a survey was sent to all the department heads asking what is mandated by the state and what is not mandated," he said. "I did put in that, technically, general zoning is not mandated. There is nothing in the law that says a county has to have general zoning."
In fact, Jennrich said, if the county wanted to get out of general zoning, there is a provision about how to go about doing it.
"My only comment that I made to the funding opportunities committee is that Oneida County has had some form of zoning - in the form of a rural zoning ordinance - since the 1930s," he said. "We've had a robust zoning ordinance from the 50s and 70s."
In 1970, Jennrich said Oneida County adopted shoreland zoning based on a state mandate.
"That's the mandated portion," he said. "As of today, there are 20 towns in Oneida County and only three are unzoned. There's Sugar Camp, except for two lakes, and Monico and Enterprise."
Off the top of his head, ending general zoning could save as much as $200,000 to $300,000, Jennrich said.
"Right now, some of our staff are involved in general zoning, meaning we are issuing location or occupancy or building permits for those areas that are zoned," he said. "But the biggest bulk of that work is the administrative review and conditional use permits. It's regulating uses within those districts. Again, we have 15 different zoning districts and within those districts those uses are regulated as part of the administrative review permits and conditional use permits and we answer questions on what is allowed within those districts."
However, Jennrich said, if the county doesn't have zoning, those towns who do want it will have to have their own zoning administrator, their own set of permits, and their own zoning documents.
Cushing said he didn't believe there were even two or three towns in the county that could afford to go it alone.
Holewinski said he doubted the idea would fly with the county board anyway, and Sorensen opined that it might not fly with the zoning committee itself.
Cushing asked what impact doing away with general zoning would have on the department's revenues because the county charges fees for conditional use permits and administrative review permits and more. Jennrich acknowledged he had not factored that into his analysis of cost savings he gave to the funding opportunities committee.
"Then you're not saving $300,000," Cushing said.
In the end, Jennrich told the committee, it was their decision whether to have the county play the central role in zoning.
"Do you want us to administer it for the towns, or do you want the towns to do it on their own?" he asked. "On occasion a town will grumble about Oneida County zoning, but for the most part since I've been here I think we've done a good job in trying to accommodate their wishes and desires, looking at junkyard complaints, regulating uses, regulating signs."
Timmons said any suggestion to get rid of county zoning would raise howls of protest.
"Every complaint I've heard against zoning would be erased when they realize they would have to do it themselves," Timmons said.
People might not like a particular thing and say they don't want zoning, Timmons continued, but in the same breath they would not want to regulate tourist rooming houses, junkyards, fencing, signs, and all the other things the department regulates.
Jennrich did say some counties don't have zoning and basically turn it over to the towns.
But the committee wasn't having it, and neither was Jennrich, and the supervisors voted to nix the idea, as they did with doing away with the county's subdivision ordinance and floodplain zoning.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce