Highway Bill Could Cost State

When the Wisconsin State Legislature cut $35 million in local road aids in the 2012 state budget, Door County Highway Commissioner John Kolodziej warned that the cuts could impact the county’s ability to perform state highway maintenance.

He said his department anticipates bringing in at least $200,000 less in revenue in 2012 due to the reduction in local road aids and new limits on the work the county is allowed to perform. As a result, the Kolodziej said the county may not be able to perform maintenance on State Highway 42 and 57, including snow and ice removal next year.

Kolodziej said negotiations with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) are at a standstill.

“This will ultimately require a decision out of Madison,” he said.

The Door County Highway Department performs all maintenance and construction work on the county trunk highway system, as well as general maintenance for the state highways and local roads and streets under agreements with various municipalities.

Joint Finance Bill 352, introduced last spring, would have prohibited county highway departments from contracting with municipalities to perform road maintenance and barred them from doing projects that cost more than $100,000. The measure was introduced to open more highway projects up to private contractors and push county and municipal departments out of the highway maintenance business.

But county highway departments around the state balked, saying that such projects were necessary to generate the revenue needed to support the staff and infrastructure to remove snow and ice in the winter.

“We have the investment in equipment and facilities that we’ve built up over years to fulfill these duties,” Kolodziej said. “For us to get the revenue to maintain roads in the winter, we have to maintain staff throughout the year.”

Eventually the language in the bill was softened to allow counties to perform work for municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents, which means the Door County Highway Department can no longer perform work for the City of Sturgeon Bay. Kolodziej said that leaves his department looking at between $200,000 and $300,000 less in revenue next year.

The state contracts with the county to plow State Highway 42 and 57, but with the loss in revenue, Kolodziej said the county may not be able to perform those duties.

Door County Board Supervisor Paul DeWitt is a member of the Highway Committee. He said the state tied the county’s hands by limiting the work they can do in the summer.

“A new plow truck costs about $200,000,” he said. “We employ eight trucks and eight men dedicated to the highways to plow snow in the winter. Now that’s three or four months, and you don’t plow snow every day, so you buy all this equipment and manpower but now we can’t use it most of the year.”

DeWitt said the state must either pursue an amendment to the bill that would allow the county to do more work or compensate the county at a much higher rate for snow and ice removal.

If an agreement is not reached, the state would have to find a private contractor or a neighboring county to do the work, since it doesn’t own snowplows. Kim Rudat, the regional communications director for the DOT, said he couldn’t speculate on who the state might turn to.

“It would be premature for us to look elsewhere when we have a great relationship and are continuing to negotiate with the county,” he said.

DeWitt said he is not aware of any private company in the area that could do the work.

“It’s very expensive to get into snow plowing for the number of snow events we have,” he said. “What happens in a winter when you don’t get much snow?”

Door County is committed to performing work on the state highways through the end of this year, but without an agreement Kolodziej said his department would be looking at staff layoffs and selling off some of its equipment. But he’s more worried about what happens in the years ahead.

“The biggest concern, in my opinion, is that I don’t believe this is the end of it,” Kolodziej said. “There’s going to continually be pressure on us from the private sector to perform the jobs we’ve historically done. We’re preparing long term for that reality.”

Though he firmly believes an agreement will be reached with Door County, Rudat made it clear that one way or another, the DOT “fully intends to maintain the state highways and bridges of Door County.”