Connecting state and local government leaders
“It’s something that will be an evolutionary process, not revolutionary,” according to Washington County administrator Joshua Schoemann.
As many as five counties in Wisconsin have begun discussions over how to best provide public services at a time of “grim” financial futures for local governments.
In a letter dated July 17, the county administrator and county executive chairman of Washington County, located northeast of Milwaukee, asked four surrounding counties to begin discussions of centered around partnering on vital public services.
“It’s something that will be an evolutionary process, not revolutionary,” Joshua Schoemann, Washington County administrator, told Route Fifty regarding the early stages of the discussions.
The reason for the discussions even happening?
Washington County, with a population of just over 133,000 residents, faces as much as a $10 million budget shortfall over roughly the next five to 10 years, Schoemann said.
“We don’t see that improving without improving local government,” Schoemann said in a phone interview Wednesday. “People don’t want their property taxes to go up.”
Washington County stands as one of several local governments around the country that has worked with the Center for Priority-Based Budgeting (now known as Resource Exploration), a Denver-based consulting group that aims to help local units of government apply data around just what services they’re uniquely qualified to provide, versus those which they could easily partner on with other governments and stakeholders.
In most cases, local units of government are only “uniquely qualified” to provide about 40 percent of the services they actually provide, according to Chris Fabian, co-founder of Resource Exploration, ResourceX.
The organization runs its municipal clients—which includes Washington County—through an exercise where they’re asked to prioritize based upon the local unit’s services, what those services cost and how those align with broader community goals.
“We have to ID every service they provide and we put a price tag on it,” Fabian told Route Fifty. “They go through an exercise. Is there anyone else providing snow removal? Of course there is. Are (they) the only possible provider or are there others in the public or private sector?”
Addressing duplication of services has become a hot topic of conversation in recent years for those in municipal government. Services ranging from 911 emergency services to snow and trash removal to public health have all been discussed and implemented at various levels.
In Washington County, the discussions are still in the early stages, so Schoemann said he was unable to provide specifics over which services might be best suited for partnerships with neighboring counties.
“We’re open to anything anyone is willing to talk about,” he said.
The county already shares public health services with Waukesha County to the south.
Nonetheless, executives with Washington County say the situation in the state is dire and they hope that neighboring counties will submit plans to be part of the Local Government Institute of Wisconsin’s Future Region’s Initiative.
“It is our sincere belief that the existing climate is grim for county government in Wisconsin, the
long term outlook is financially and politically unsustainable,” the Washington County officials wrote in their letter. “We agree with LGI’s assessment that if all things remain the same “the highest potential for local government” is to ‘maintain existing service levels.’”
Schoemann and County Board Chairman Rick Gundrum contend that given freezes on abilities to levy taxes and stagnant states, maintaining the status quo will only lead to reductions in services or staff or raising taxes through millages, or some combination.
The various counties have a deadline of Sept. 30 to apply for the LGI’s next session.
Municipal consolidation, of course, has its detractors, as many see it as just simply a way of privatizing or reducing public services.
A 2009 report from Ball State University in Indiana notes that while claims of enhancing economic development tends to be overblown, there are often considerable cost savings attached to government consolidation.
In some cases as much as $360 million annually, according to the Ball State report.
To Fabian, many of the concerns have some level of validity, but the cost savings also make for a powerful narrative.
“There’s rhetoric about less government,” he said. “They’re not talking that way. It’s not about slashing or cutting. It’s about coming up with more efficient models and partnerships. It’s not about privatizing government. If the private sector has a better approach, let’s have the conversation about the best way to handle these services.”
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Correction: This article originally referred to the company of which Chris Fabian is a co-founder as Research Exploration. The correct company name is Resource Exploration.
Nick Manes is a journalist based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a regular contributor to Route Fifty. Follow him on Twitter at @nickrmanes