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September 17, 2019

9/10/2019 7:30:00 AM
Oneida County: A lot of priorities, a whole lot less money
Public safety radio infrastructure tops the tab at $3.5 million

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

The Oneida County capital improvement projects subcommittee has prioritized and sent to the administration committee for review a list of 20 proposed 2020 capital improvement projects totaling about $7.9 million, about $3.7 million more than what the county's undesignated general fund can responsibly bear, officials say.

Leading the way as just about everybody's top priority is the replacement of the county's public safety radio infrastructure located at each tower site and at the E911 Center/Minocqua dispatch backup.

The one project is projected to cost about $3.5 million, or 44 percent of the total requested amount of capital improvements, and would include the replacement of the current microwave system, public safety two-way radio equipment, the E911 radio console, call taking, furniture and flooring updates.

Chief deputy Dan Hess said the project could not be staged over several years and was absolutely necessary.

No one argued, but the price tag did call attention to a difficult fiscal situation.

"I see a lot of good projects, necessary to urgent, but we are going to be working with only 'x' number of dollars," supervisor Billy Fried said. "If there are some things that maybe could be put off, it changes my recommendations to the county board."

Supervisor Jack Sorensen said the committee needed first of all to see how much money could be spent on the proposed projects and then make some tough decisions.

"I agree with Billy, there is a limited amount of money," Sorensen said. "I think at some point we have to decide how much we want to keep as a balance in the general fund that has 'x' amount of dollars and wherever that 'x' amount of dollars is, that's where we draw the line on projects."

That could be a bitter pill for many, Sorensen said.

"If we decide there's only enough money for one project, that's the one project," he said. "No matter how critical everything else is, maintaining the general fund in my opinion, at least at a minimal level, is important to the county."

Fried wondered if there was a point when the county would consider other options beside the general fund, such as borrowing for high-cost projects or a referendum for projects that just can't wait.

Subcommittee chairman Robb Jensen said the funding of the projects was not really the subcommittee's jurisdiction or concern.

"Are we going to recommend how we fund these?" Jensen said. "I don't know if that's the role of the committee. This committee's job is to take a look at the, in this case, 20 capital improvement projects, and we are going to come up with a ranking of one through 20, and Darcy [finance director Darcy Smith] is going to tell us what would be a safe amount within the general fund that could go toward these projects and it goes to administration."

The administration committee then has the task and responsibility to review the subcommittee's recommended priorities and make decisions about how to fund projects, Jensen said. They could decide to not pursue some projects, or pursue some projects through the normal budgeting process, or through borrowing.

The administration committee could also rearrange priorities.

Jensen also said it was pretty unusual for such a high-priced single project to come along in one year.

"It's going to take a pretty good chunk out of that available reserve, and I think it's going to go to administration with some decisions to make and to the full county board," he said. "But that will be their job to try and find funding."

A little short in the wallet

That said, the subcommittee discussed just how much money the county had to spend anyway.

Smith said the undesignated general fund stood at a little more than $6.2 million. That is after the county's designated, or committed, liabilities are subtracted.

Smith said she had also removed and set aside from that amount a reserve equaling three-and-a-half months of general fund expenditures. The county is required to maintain that level, Smith said.

Still, though that left $6.2 million to spend, Smith advised that the county put aside $2 million of that for unexpected but sometimes necessary expenditures.

"We need that money in the general fund due to the fact that we do have things that come up through the year," she said. "Solid waste, for example, is looking for a loan of $175,000."

There were water heater expenditures one year, and always there are unanticipated expenses, Smith said.

"There are things that come in throughout the year that you want to make sure that you have the general fund to be able to accommodate them, if necessary," she said.

Sorensen said that was just good fiscal policy, but he observed that that left the county only $4.2 million to fund capital improvements from the general fund in 2020. And given the price tag of the public safety infrastructure project, Sorensen said there wasn't much left to divvy up.

"So right now we have $4.2 million on the table, and the sheriff's project is $3.5 million," he said. "So we have $700,000 to play with. That's all."

And that $4.2 million figure was a line in the sand for him, Sorensen said.

"I'm not going to recommend anything beyond the $4.2 million," he said. "Anything beyond that, I'm sorry, everybody has what they would like to have. We kind of got dumped on on a lot of this stuff this year. There are just going to be a lot of projects that aren't going to make it."

Smith observed that, of the projects before them, 10 were new, with supervisors never having seen them before this year.

As the subcommittee began to prioritize, though, Jensen urged the committee not to think about how much there was to spend but to prioritize according to their importance.

"Try not to think $4.2 million," he said. "Try to think about these projects and how you would rank them if we had $7.9 million. Try not to think about what won't make it. That's not our problem."

Their task was to give to the administration committee their list of projects prioritized by importance, and the administration committee would take those recommendations and decide what to do with them.

Sorensen said he agreed with Jensen.

"I agree that we rank this stuff, and then it's up to the administration committee to take our rankings and to say 'they were crazy' or 'Hail Mary and we'll go for the whole thing,'" he said. "What are we supposed to be doing here today? My thought was, we were going to rank these one through 20."

And that's just what they did. Other projects ranking high were proposed highway reconstruction, though committee members doubted the highway department would end up with as much as it requested, a hardware refresh to replace aging computers, a network infrastructure upgrade, mobile radios for county squad cars, and a server/storage upgrade to replace out of date server hardware models and expand on-site storage.

Not ranked so high? Purchasing computer tablets for county board members.

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at

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