County board votes to fund capital projects without borrowing
By Lori Adler
Oneida County capital projects that had not been approved in November as part of the 2020 budget were discussed at length at this week’s meeting of the board of supervisors. Though a motion was made to borrow money to fund these projects, in the end the board chose to take the necessary money from the general fund, which will reduce the fund to a level below recommendations.
At the November meeting, discussion around capital improvements, potential borrowing and potential cutting of programs were discussed during a meeting that lasted well over eight hours. As no agreement could be made on cuts, and motions to borrow funds failed, the board ultimately decided to take just over $4 million from the general fund for three of the capital improvement requests, leaving nine requests yet to be funded.
At the Jan, 21 meeting, Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) loan application paperwork for $2.2 million was presented for consideration. The BCPL requires board approval before an application can be submitted. Supervisor Robb Jensen made a motion to proceed with the loan application, which was seconded by supervisor Ted Cushing. A lengthy debate ensued.
“Every year we have more expenses,” supervisor Bill Liebert said. “That has to be part of this conversation. If we’re going to go into debt to cover these things this year, what are we going to do next year and the following year and the year after that?”
Jensen said that reducing the general fund puts the county at risk of a lower bond rating which could impact future loan interest rates. Finance director Darcy Smith had previously explained that keeping $8.8 million in the general fund (which equates to operating expenses for 3.5 months) helps maintain the county’s high bond rating. A lower rating could cost the county more in interest on any future loans.
“Why would we do something today that’s going to decrease our bond rating, that will increase the cost of borrowing in the future,” Jensen said. “I don’t see how that’s fiscally responsible.”
As the discussion showed a clear division, a compromise was suggested by supervisor Steven Schreier to borrow a smaller amount. Schreier moved to amend the original motion to a loan of $1.4 million with the rest of the needed money coming from the general fund. The motion was then called to a vote with a three-fourths majority needed to pass. The resolution failed 10-9.
A motion was then made to take the $2.2 million for capital projects from the general fund. Comments continued on both sides of the argument.
Supervisor Jack Sorensen then noted that a loan was still possible if an emergency arose. He held up the loan application and stated, “This is still an alternative, gentlemen.”
After considerably more debate, a vote was called. The resolution passed 18-1.
Additional funding for winter maintenance
A request from the public works department was presented for board consideration. Money was requested to cover a shortfall of $142,743 for fiscal year 2019. The shortfall was due to winter maintenance on county roads and bridges caused by excessive snow and ice. The request for additional funding was approved.
ATV ordinance amendment
An amendment was proposed to the current county ATV ordinance to open additional routes for ATV use. These additional routes help complete loops to and from the city of Rhinelander. The board passed the resolution and amended the ordinance to include the following routes:
County C: open from Hwy. 17 to the East Stella town line (closed between the East Stella town line and Hwy. 45).
County G: open the entire length.
County K: open the entire length.
County P: open from Hwy. 17 to East Lake George Road (closed between East Lake George Road and Hwy. 8).
County W: open the entire length.
Prayer/invocation at county board meetings
Supervisor Jim Winkler presented a resolution for consideration allowing for a prayer/invocation at the beginning of the board of supervisors meeting. The board proceedings currently begin with a moment of silence followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Winkler’s resolution would place a prayer/invocation between the moment of silence and the pledge.
Many board members said the moment of silence time could be used for anyone who wished to pray in silence and that offering a prayer or invocation would open the county up for lawsuits. According to the board’s legal counsel, having a prayer time would require all denominations and religions to be included, as well as careful wording to ensure no one felt forced to pray.
With most supervisors in agreement that this resolution would open the board up for possible legal issues, the resolution failed when put to a vote.
The next meeting of the Oneida County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 9:30 a.m. on the second floor of the Oneida County Courthouse.