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September 22, 2019

8/22/2019 7:30:00 AM
Oneida County capital improvement requests mushroom to $7.9 million
2020 requests rise $3.5 million over last year's 2020 projections

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Oneida County departmental capital improvement requests for the 2020 budget year have swelled to nearly $8 million, putting pressure on the county's general fund at a time when supervisors are also trying to find new revenues or spending cuts to raise employee wages by about $800,000 a year.

The county's capital improvement program subcommittee reviewed this week 23 requests for 2020, totaling $7,986,615.

That's up by about $3.5 million over what was estimated during the 2019 budget process for capital improvement spending in 2020, which at the time was projected to total $4,498,491, according to county finance director Darcy Smith.

Of the $7.9 million in requests, about $250,000 would come from existing departmental fund balances, another $100,000 would come from budgeted tax levy, and $254,000 would come from grants, leaving more than $7.3 million to be funded from the general fund's undesignated fund balance.

Not all the projects will be funded, and a couple of small ones were viewed as unlikely by the subcommittee this week. But if they were all funded, Smith said it would completely deplete the general fund balance.

"It would wipe it out, plus," she told the committee. "It's more than what is available in the general fund."

What's more, Smith said, another committee is eyeing the proposed use of $100,000 in tax levy for something else.

The use of the general fund to pay for capital projects has been growing in recent years, Smith told the committee.

"When we look at 2019 and at the general fund, we used $2 million of the general fund for projects and in 2018 we used $1.3 million," she observed. "In 2017 we used about $886,000 from the general fund, $906,000 in 2016, and $309,000 in 2015. The number is increasing significantly compared to any other year that we've used funds from the general fund for CIP (capital improvement projects)."

Smith also cautioned that the county board gets requests and does spend money in the course of the year from the general fund for capital projects outside the CIP process, such as a $57,000 expenditure for jail plumbing valve controllers in 2019. Such expenditures are usually unanticipated but necessary, and so the county needs a reserve, she said.

Not only the total cost but the number of requested capital improvement projects is also growing. The jump to $7.98 million from about $4.49 million projected during last year's budget process includes projects supervisors have never seen before.

"Ten of the 23 projects that you are going to see today are new to the CIP," Smith told the committee. "You did not see them last year."

That's not standard practice because the county operates on a multiple-year plan for capital projects.

"When we budget for the CIP process, we usually do a five-year plan and you should be seeing those projects that were presented last year or the year before potentially for this year, but 10 of these 23 projects you will be seeing for the first time," she said.

The new projects presented include $275,000 for a highway department patrol truck purchase, $130,000 for law enforcement body scanners, and $66,000 for software that would allow the county to use aerial imagery to track how much impervious surfaces are on properties within 500 feet of water bodies.

While all the requests add up to a hefty number, subcommittee chairman Robb Jensen said Oneida County was fortunate in that it does have a substantial undesignated general fund that will allow funding of many of the projects without going into debt.

"It seems like a lot, but we're one of the few counties that are able to even consider this," Jensen said. "Most counties are looking at bundle-and-borrow to do any of this. So we're fortunate to have an undesignated general fund reserve that will allow us to do some of these projects."

The committee did not take any votes on the requests at the Monday meeting but proceeded this week to rank them according to priorities as its review continues. The committee was set to meet again after press deadline for this edition to continue that process.

How to pay for it

The large number of proposed projects and their costs - many described as necessary and timely - prompted a discussion that is common these days at various committee meetings: Where is all the money going to come from?

That discussion came during a review of the highway department's capital improvement project requests, which for 2020 alone total more than $2 million, including $950,000 for highway reconstruction to maintain a 25-year replacement plan.

The requested source of revenue - in addition to taking $100,000 from the tax levy and $240,000 in federal/state aids - would include $610,000 from the county's general fund, an increase of $260,000.

"Our philosophical point will be, should we increase from $350,000 fund balance to $610,000, with all the other stuff that is in front of us," Jensen said.

The other question is the $100,000 from the tax levy, Jensen said, which is being targeted for other potential uses, including to help with the implementation of the proposed Carlson-Dettmann wage increase for county employees.

"There's also some discussion that, as we look at the 2020 budget, there are increases coming into social services so that it might have to go back to them," he said. "So if that tax levy is not there in 2020, then we'd be asking for an additional $100,000 from the fund balance, and it would go up to $710,000."

Supervisor Jack Sorensen pointed out that not only is the use of the undesignated general fund balance going up significantly but some revenues that traditionally replenish that balance will likely be pinched this year.

"It's safe to say that money going into the general fund from stumpage - last year we hit $2 million, which was phenomenal, but between what happened this spring with all the bad weather and now all that blow down [from the storm in July], I'd be happy to see $1 million in stumpage revenue this year," Sorensen said. "That's going to be a huge change."

The county budgeted $1.3 million for stumpage revenues this year.

While some projects might not be a priority for 2020, one thing people want to see are good roads, said supervisor Billy Fried.

"People expect their roads to be maintained, so if there weren't the dollars in here to maintain the roads to the level they expect or that we'd like to, what are our other options?" Fried asked.

Debt is one option, Jensen replied.

"With all of this, the option is, at what point does the county have to consider bundle and borrow?" he said. "Additional revenue sources include bundle and borrow. School districts have gone to referendum. There's the dreaded word, 'wheel tax.' That's a source of revenue. All of those can potentially increases taxes."

If the county allocates its money for 2020 and still can't complete all it needs to get done, that's the dialogue that may have to happen on the county board floor, Jensen said: "Are we at that point that we have to consider those, all of which have advantages and disadvantages," he said.

Another option, Jensen said, was to cut existing programs and spending.

"You might have to go back and take a look at your total county budget and say, 'OK, we're going to have to take $300,000 of tax levy from these programs and move it to higher priority programs,'" he said. "Then you're going to cut programs. We may be getting there, but that's all part of these discussions."

Sorensen said he had not so far seen any significant movement toward actually cutting programs.

"I haven't seen the cutting," he said. "You're nickel and diming some of these groups. Some of these groups that you've made a prior commitment to, suddenly you're reneging on commitments, but you haven't gone after North Central Regional Planning Commission. You haven't taken a real hard look at UW-Extension and some of these other things. Do we really need them?"

Jensen said the work of the funding opportunities committee, which is looking for ways to increase efficiencies and/or revenues, primarily for wage increases, and the capital improvement process were all interrelated in preparing the 2020 budget.

"But the bottom line starts coming down to, when are we going to start to say, this program gets cut, and that tax levy gets allocated somewhere else," he said. "Funding opportunities is telling everybody, 'Take a look at your programs and this is your chance to justify whether it is good or bad.' Does it have an impact here? Yes, it does."

Significant projects

Some of the other significant capital improvement requests for 2020 include the recommended replacement of the air supply and handling system that services the historic area of the courthouse, at a cost of $607,500, because the current air handling equipment does not allow for air supply to historic areas of the courthouse on the second and third floors.

The current system has also outlived its expected life and was poorly installed in any event, the request states.

Another significant request is for $200,000 to upgrade the law enforcement center's video surveillance system.

"The currently used video surveillance system in the administration and jail areas of the LEC is outdated, and not all areas that should have surveillance have cameras," the request states.

The sheriff's department is also seeking $215,900 for law enforcement center/911 center furniture and flooring to coincide with updates to the center's recording system, dispatch, printers, and more.

"The update of the 911 center, including NextGeneration, recording system, dispatch, printers, etc., will require the update to the failing furniture that comes with the wear and tear of use in a 24-hour per day/7-day per week operation," the request states. "Current equipment is no longer meeting the needs of the users and parts for replacement/repair are increasingly difficult to obtain."

The furniture also needs to meet ergonomic needs and feature 24-hour durability, the request states.

Over at the highway department, the agency is seeking $408,000 for a new brine building and storage building to house a brine maker and 80,000 gallons of storage tanks plus additional footage to store loaders. The 80,000 gallons would service all nine patrol routes that are serviced from the Rhinelander facility, the request states.

"The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is promoting salt brine application for ice and snow removal in lieu of rock salt," the request states. "They have purchased a high capacity brine maker and storage tanks for Oneida County. Our facility does not have sufficient space for a high capacity brine machine which includes 3 to 4 storage tanks and more if brine is sold to other municipalities."

The highway department estimates that brine buildings produce enough revenue to pay for themselves in 11 to 15 years.

In other requests, the highway department would tap the general fund for $213,000 to upgrade an existing fuel system at the Rhinelander facility, as well as $275,000 to buy a quad-patrol truck with accessories.

The department would also use another $103,615 out of the general fund to upgrade the vehicle service bay exhaust system, replacing nonworking vehicle exhaust units, adding carbon monoxide detectors and nitrogen dioxide sensors, adding a portable filter exhaust system to be used for welding operations, and replacing a damaged heating unit in the front of the shop.

Law enforcement requests are also substantial. Among other things, the sheriff's department wants $130,625 for a body scanner to scan for contraband coming into the jail.

Illegal drugs are being smuggled into the facility even with the use of proper protocols, the department states. Those protocols would continue to be used, but the scanner would add an extra step of prevention.

The department is seeking $350,000 for squad car mobile radios, which it says should have been replaced in 2018.

The sheriff's department's big-ticket item - and the county's - is $3.3 million to replace existing public safety radio infrastructure located at each tower site and the E911 Center/Minocqua dispatch.

The public safety radio system was installed in 2008, the request states, and runs continuously 24 hours a day every day of the year. As such, the request states, the system's equipment has reached "end of life" stage.

The department also is requesting about $105,000 to replace 48 Tasers due to their age.

The county's technology department is asking for $50,000 for a hardware refresh, meaning all PCs will be replaced as art of a standard seven-year replacement cycle. The department also wants $166,100 to upgrade network infrastructure and to replace all routers, switches, firewalls, and fiber runs to increase security, speed, reliability, and disaster recovery.

Finally, the IT department is requesting $181,790 to replace older out-of-date server hardware models that are no longe produced and to expand onsite storage.

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