Cutting staff, paving designed to balance highway budget

Although it now appears unlikely that residents of Lincoln County will see a referendum question asking for more tax money on the November ballot or a wheel tax instituted in 2011, the problem of finding a way to keep county roads in good repair in light of a budget crunch felt by all departments won’t go away anytime soon.

By not sending a recommendation to the full county board following an Aug. 9 joint meeting of the Finance and Highway committees, the referendum option didn’t make the deadline to be placed on the agenda for the full board to consider at its Aug. 17 meeting. This was the latest a referendum question could be considered by the board and still be placed on the November election ballot.

And while the wheel tax idea that had been suggested by County Highway Commissioner Randy Scholz as an alternative to the levy hike would only require the board to pass an ordinance instituting it, the message coming from the joint committee seemed to be “not yet.”

That left just the third of three options Scholz had presented – finding the $750,000 the Highway Department needs to keep the roads maintained at their current level from existing county funds- as the only solution for the short-term. To that end, it was suggested that the entire county board use a series of special meetings facilitated by Art Lersch of the UW-Extension to examine every department in the county to seek areas where budget cuts could be made. Then the money saved from these cuts could be redistributed to departments with pressing needs, the highway department being one of them.

That still leaves Scholz and the highway committee with finding a balance between the services it must provide, such as snow plowing, with necessary upkeep to county roads. Already several major county highways have seen their weight limits reduced to prevent heavy vehicles from causing even more damage to the roads than is already evident. Highway C from Highway K to the Langlade County line has been posted because the sub-base is starting to go. Highway J is also starting to see the same effects. “We see these things as we are driving around where the average person doesn’t. It’s still relatively smooth with a little rutting. Well that rutting is a sub-base problem, not just a pavement problem. You can’t just chip seal that and fix it, what really needs to be done is reconstruct it,” Scholz said. “While we have good roads, a lot of them are going to get bad. And the problem is a lot of them are going to get bad at the same time and then it’s too late because nobody will have the money to fix them then.”

Further complicating the department’s budget woes is the state mandated requirement that the workers be paid prevailing wage (which is higher than their regular salaries) for some jobs. The county board approved a resolution last month that was sent on to the state to repeal the prevailing wage requirements the department is under. This complicated system adds to the accounting nightmare for the department and further taxes the office staff.

“It is a tremendous amount of work internally. Our office staff has put in a lot, a lot of hours and I’ve put in a lot of hours just to be able get to work, figuring out how everything works with prevailing wage,” he said. “Prevailing wage is difficult with our accounting system to actually allow our guys to do the work. Our unions work well with us in order for us being able to do that. When we do work for the townships, it is costing them more. In the overall scheme of things, it is costing the taxpayers’ money. We can do it and we’ve done it, but there are a lot of counties that won’t even touch anything that has to do with prevailing wage. That obviously cuts down on the competition which hurts that way, too.”

Scholz said that in the past, on overall costs of county projects, prevailing wage hasn’t affected the department that much. Because when it did projects that might have required prevailing wage, the threshold was so high and contractors were used on those bigger projects. The cost threshold was $240,000 before but was lowered by the legislature to $25,000.

Prevailing wage only applies to work the department does for other entities. If the work is being done on a county road, Lincoln County workers aren’t required to be paid prevailing wage. It’s primarily when equipment or manpower is needed from another county or outside firm does it kick in.

“If we need to get a grinder from another county or we need trucks from another county then it comes into play,” Scholz said. “And it works both ways, if we send our trucks to Price County, now they have to pay our guys prevailing wage. It’s going to end up costing more money.”

The only realistic way the department can reduce its costs is by reducing staff and equipment. Two workers have accepted early retirement offers, which will save the highway department roughly $70,000 in salaries each and fringe benefit costs. By reducing staff, Scholz is also able to sell some now unneeded equipment, which will save even more money. At the Aug. 9 joint committee meeting, it was suggested that two more highway department workers could be laid off to help close the gap in the highway fund so more road maintenance could be done.

This hasn’t helped the morale of the workers, Scholz said.

“It’s very tough. They don’t know if they are going to have jobs, if we are going to lay off or what’s going to happen from day-to-day,” he said. “I hear it all the time from them and I understand it, but we need to make the decisions as we get the information. The committee has to agree with it and obviously the county board; we had issues with that, too.

“It’s obviously got to be brutal for the guys. I worked on the crew for seven years and you hear so many different rumors and 90 percent of it’s not true. But nobody knows what is or isn’t, it’s obviously got to be very difficult for them,” he added.

Scholz has said that by the end of this calendar year, the highway committee should have a better idea of how the departure of the two retirees has helped the department’s bottom line.

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