April 15 was Tax Day. (As if you had to be reminded of that.) It was also reorganization day for the Grant County Board of Supervisors.
As you know from page 1 of your favorite weekly newspaper, Sup. Bob Keeney of Mount Hope defeated County Board chair Larry Wolf. So instead of Wolf’s getting $46,437 he’s not qualified to get to be the county’s administrative leader, Keeney will be.
That last sentence is not a specific criticism of Keeney or Wolf. Neither Wolf, nor Keeney, nor anyone else on the County Board, nor anyone who has ever been on the County Board — going as far back as you like, even to the days of 68 county supervisors (one per city ward, village and town) — is qualified by virtue of being a county supervisor to run Grant County. This should be the last year that any county supervisor makes $46,000 to be the county’s lead administrative designee.
No one on the County Board — probably no one who has ever been on the County Board — has any experience or expertise running an enterprise that grosses almost $46 million per year ($11.2 million of which comes from property taxpayers) and has 536 employees. Even supervisors with business experience don’t have experience running a business anywhere close to comparable size.
Keeney noted how much an administrator would have to be paid. Iowa County’s administrator reportedly makes about $80,000 per year. (Of course, eliminating board salaries and the board chair’s salary would probably pay for the position and be money better spent.)
Keeney and his fellow supervisors should take note that Iowa County, whose land area is not even two-thirds the size of Grant County, and whose population is less than half the size of Grant County, has an administrator.
Both recent and more distant history demonstrate why Grant County needs an administrator. In the late 1980s, the Grant, Iowa and Richland county boards decided to spend nearly $500,000 on developing an incinerator to burn Southwest Wisconsin’s trash to generate electricity. It wasn’t that the people behind the project were bad people or had malign intent, but once the proposal got to the county board, there should have been more due diligence on the taxpayers’ investment.
That lack of due diligence on the part of 32 county supervisors, none of whom were experts in converting garbage to energy, stuck Grant County with half the bill, payable for 20 years, for a project that never got past the testing stage because of bad design and, by the way, not nearly enough garbage generated here to make the project work, financially or otherwise.
More recently, the top floor of the county’s Administration Building in Lancaster has sat vacant since the building opened. Yes, despite overcrowding at the Law Enforcement Center, serious problems with the Orchard Manor 1952 building, and rented space elsewhere in Lancaster, the top floor of the Administration Building sits empty. That should give you a good idea of whether adding a floor was a good idea.
There is also the issue of the board’s repeated violations of the state Open Meetings Law, including going into closed session to hold interviews with candidates for a board vacancy (blatantly illegal because county supervisors are not county employees), and a closed-door can’t-we-all-just-get-along meeting (which worked until the next meeting). One thing administrators of municipalities in Wisconsin are familiar with is the Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
Another thing professional administrators do is know, or figure out, which questions to ask, and how to evaluate the answers. Hindsight says that didn’t happen with either the incinerator or the Administration Building. Hindsight is 20/20, but making bad decisions has costs far beyond a county supervisor’s term in office. Given these past examples of bad decision-making, the Grant County taxpayer should wonder how much confidence should be placed in the board’s decisions about the Grant County Courthouse. (In part because, while the Courthouse is a Lancaster landmark, for the rest of Grant County it’s an office building in a nice location.)
More professional county administration is particularly important in the post-Act 10 era. The board’s past dealings with nonunion employees served to goad them into unionizing. The fact that government unions now have considerably less bargaining power does not absolve the county from the responsibility to treat its employees fairly, particularly if the economy ever improves to the point where the county has to actively compete for employees.
The last reason to hire a county administrator is to end the tiresome, juvenile cult of personality that has revolved around the county board chair’s position for decades, with rare exception. Reading this newspaper merely over the past two years occasionally makes you think four-year-olds at Neal Wilkins Early Learning Center behave better than some supervisors.
County supervisors are not experts in municipal finance, and they’re not experts in human resources. They are elected to be legislators, not administrators — to make policy decisions, not oversee the day-to-day operations of county government. If an administrator does a bad job, you fire him or her. It’s too difficult to fire a majority of elected officials for doing a bad job.