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Washington woos Ozaukee for partnership, even merger PDF Print E-mail
Written by JOHN MORTON   
Thursday, 03 August 2017 15:48

Citing ‘grim’ outlook for counties, officials to the west want to explore ‘any and all’ future options

Calling the outlook for Wisconsin counties grim, Washington County has asked Ozaukee County to join it in a new initiative to seek “any and all” opportunities for sharing services, even merging the two counties.
“The long-term outlook (for counties) is financially and politically unsustainable,” Washington County Board Chairman Rick Gundrum and County Administrator Joshua Scholemann wrote in a July 17 letter to Ozaukee County.
Ozaukee County Interim Administrator Jason Dzwinel said Tuesday he expected the County Board to discuss the proposal at its Wednesday, Aug. 2, meeting. That was the last regularly scheduled County Board meeting before Washington County’s Aug. 11 deadline for a response.
Lee Schlenvogt, chairman of the Ozaukee County Board, said the county is always looking at potential consolidation of departments between counties.
“Our mantra is if we can save money and not affect services, we’re all for it,” he said. “But consolidating counties? That’s a big step and would require a lot of research before we’d even consider it.
“But we’re going to take a look at it. I made sure every member of the board got a copy of the letter.”
Washington County is asking all of its neighboring counties to join it and invest in a program called the Future Regions Initiative, developed by the Local Government Institute of Wisconsin. The program provides workshops that focus on collaboration, engagement and accountability.
An application deadline is Sept. 30.
“We see this initiative  as an opportunity to fully embrace an alternative to the less-than desirable options of raising taxes or reducing services,” Washington County leaders wrote in the letter. “We strongly believe that partnering with one of our bordering counties toward the concept of ‘counties without borders’ provides the brightest opportunity for this reinvention.”
Costs of joining the Future Regions Initiative program vary depending on the number of counties participating and their populations. If Washington and Ozaukee counties alone were to pair up, Dzwinel estimated it would cost each county a one-time fee of about $12,000 for the three workshops led by the program’s staff.
“They help identify trends and scenarios in the region,” Dzwinel said of the workshops. “That’s what we’d be getting.”
Sharing services is nothing new for these two counties. They combined forces for a Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department and a child advocacy program (which also includes Sheboygan County), and talks between Ozaukee and Washington counties of merging public transit services are also taking place.
Dzwinel said he’d support the board’s recommendation, but noted, “We are used to dealing with things in a more pragmatic way” than doing something that could be seen as an extreme measure.
“We’d like to partner with any county if it provides for better services, but our first priority is always to take care of Ozaukee County,” he added. “It can start with some conversations, but combining counties is a big goal. It’s also a difficult hill to climb.”
Consolidation of counties is allowed by state statute.
In its letter, Washington County leaders, who said they have examined their county’s financial projections, wrote: “The culmination of this work is our acknowledgement of the stark reality that in order to survive, local governments in Wisconsin must fundamentally reinvent themselves.”
Dzwinel did not want to speculate on the challenges facing Washington County, but said, “They must see a substantial gap between what they will spend and what they will take in between now and 2021.”
Added Schlenvogt, “It’s probably pre-planning on their part, but what they wrote doesn’t sound good. Without exact numbers, I can’t say much because I don’t know what shape they’re in.”
The same concerns don’t exist in Ozaukee County, Dzwinel said, noting it has enjoyed the state’s lowest tax rate per capita every year except one over the past 15 years.
“We are far more opportunistic to meet the challenges of the next five years and beyond. We have worked hard the past 15 to 20 years to ensure we’ll be able to do that,” Dzwinel said. “Our analysis demonstrates that we will.”
Ironically, the area now known as Ozaukee County was once part of Washington County. Ozaukee County became its own entity in 1853.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 03 August 2017 15:49