Proposed budget may spell end of transit, recycling in Merrill

How the final bi-annual budget that comes out of Madison looks could have a deep impact on the services that the City of Merrill can afford to continue offering, according to Mayor Bill Bialecki.

“We don’t have exact numbers yet from the state on how it is going to impact us. We were looking at 8.8 percent and our current shared revenue is $3.4 million. And 8.8 percent of that would be roughly $300,000. That’s not necessarily cut but make up for,” Bialecki said.

Depending on what language the budget repair bill that is currently stymied due to the absence of 14 Democratic senators contains when and if it is passed could spell the end for the Merrill-Go-Round. Bialecki said the federal transit funds it receives are tied to the collective bargaining terms.

“It is very likely that they could stop all funding. The state thinks it has a way to get into the transportation fund and replace that, but I don’t think it’s going to be quite that simple. You just can’t take a chance, what with all the damage it would do to all these municipalities that do have a mass transit system,” he said. “We’d all have to shut them down, I know we would.”

Bialecki said the loss of transit funds would not only affect those municipalities with bus service, it would also quash the work Merrill, along with Wausau, Stevens Point, Mosinee, Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids has been doing for over two years on starting an intercity bus route.

“All that would be for nothing, we’d lose that. Two years worth of work would be down the drain,” Bialecki said.

The city is so concerned with the potential impacts of the collective bargaining rights being reduced under the budget repair bill it was scheduled to vote on a resolution urging the state to leave those rights alone for public workers.

“That is all part of having a union, having collective bargaining on a local level,” Bialecki said. “I feel we should have that tool because every city has different circumstances, different services that they provide in different ways. So to have just a broad mandate, you can’t do that.”

If the state cuts mandatory recycling, Bialecki said the city would have to look at how it wants to continue offering the service, if at all.

“Maybe there is some new technology out there that we can use,” he said. “Right now, for recycling in the City of Merrill, our base costs are $196,000 a year. We get just over $50,000 back from the state, leaving us with over $145,000 to pick up on our own. We may look at having drop off points or basically send it back to the landfill.”

If everything ends up in the county landfill, this may increase the tipping fee the city is charged, as well as the increased fuel and other costs associated with additional runs to the landfill.

“We would certainly have to have some conversations with the county on how they want to operate and what they want to take out there,” Bialecki said.

The cost of the recycling program may seem like a small percentage of the city budget, but Bialecki says it still is a lot of money. And with budgets getting tighter, the savings of reducing services may be weighed against each other in the future.

Still, he said the city is in relatively good shape for 2011.

“We should be good for this year. It’s a lot less than we had planned on but I think we got a good wake-up call with all this. And we’re going to have to do a lot better job at how we present services for the city,” he said.

The increased contributions that city workers will have to make to their health insurance and pension will help the city’s bottom line in the long run, Bialecki said.

“I don’t see it hurting the city, and I am in favor of it, as are most of our city employees. They are willing to work with us and they know that this is the way things are going to be. I think they have got that message loud and clear from the public,” he said.

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