Open Letter: Reflections on my Anniversary

This letter was distributed internally through the Village of Weston agency officials and its employees.

Today, May 29th, marks my one year anniversary since I started as the Village Administrator here in Weston. I am a sentimental fellow, so I could not let the occasion pass without some reflection on events past and share comment about the direction of our future.

I want to publicly acknowledge the current members of the Board of Trustees (as well as former Trustee Mark Maloney) for their trust in giving me this opportunity to serve the citizens and taxpayers of the Village of Weston. Any success that a Local Government Manager may enjoy during their tenure is always predicated and rooted in the relationship that he enjoys with his elected officials. Having worked for two elected officials, six different local government agencies, two different state agencies, and a group of non-for-profits, I have seen my share of good and bad officials over the years. In contrast, I can say without hesitation that the Board of Trustees for the Village of Weston is among the best group of men and women that I have had the chance to work for. For this and other reasons, I want to say “Thank You!” to the Trustees.

I also want to acknowledge all of the employees of the Village, each of whom have assisted with my transition this past year. Together, we have endured a frenetic twelve months, including an operating budget deficit in excess of $800,000, as well as substantial cuts in state shared revenue. We have also seen significant public controversy regarding the availability of public transportation and historically-unprecedented changes in public sector labor relations. The focused effort needed to address these and other concerns has not yet provided me with the time required to acquaint myself with all of you at the level that I would have liked, but I do look forward to developing deeper, stronger relationships with this team in the coming year. I know that transitions in management and work expectations are hard even in the best of circumstances. Most have shown me their resilience and have weathered the recent challenges extremely well. Our citizens, the Board of Trustees, and I all benefit daily from a fantastic group of Department Chiefs/Directors. Looking to the future and considering further changes, this agency is fortunate to have so much talent and work ethic among its employees. What we accomplish going forward will be built on this foundation.

After adoption of the 2013 budget, I have spent the past six months reviewing Weston’s service portfolio, evaluating many of our procedures, assessing how we handle our business, and considering new options. As I have attempted to share throughout this past year, I believe that this decade faces different obstacles than the heady boom, borrow, and build days of yester-years and that this change is not a blip on the radar or a bump on the road. Last November’s tax levy referendum and the introduction of new fees-for-service have shown us that a stagnate economy has left our citizens with a limited ability to provide us with additional revenues. Despite significant efforts made last fall, I knew going into this year that the Board of Trustees would be facing choices that essentially boiled down to three categories: raise revenues, make cuts, or make changes.

In keeping with the progression of these discussions, I will soon be introducing to the Trustees, at their request, a series of proposals, some which will significantly adjust how Weston has previously gone about providing its services. I know that many of our employees were hopeful that we could find solutions that would be completely pain/change-free. I also know that there were still a few anticipating solutions that could allow us to perpetuate the familiar, address our ongoing financial needs, and minimize discomfort. Though I have not relished the responsibility, I continue to believe that all of you deserve to know that change, subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees, could be coming. It is very probable that the knowledge of these new changes will lead to some added workplace stress. Even so, I am confident that this team will face our challenges collaboratively and continue to conduct ourselves all in a manner consistent with the high levels of customer service and professionalism that I have seen in all of you. Throughout these discussions, my door remains open to all of you. I am happy to talk with anyone about the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of the plans going forward as they continue to be confirmed.

Ultimately, the paths taken, choices made, decisions implemented, etc…, won’t be driven by just one person. Keeping people safe, providing them with services, building community, and fostering resident attachment has been and will continued to be a cooperative process between Village employees, citizen committee members, and our elected Board of Trustees. For the opportunity to contribute, serve, share and collaborate with all of you on this, my anniversary, I want to acknowledge all your contributions and express my gratitude for being part of this team. Thank you!

Opinion Editorial: Transit Proposal Should be Simpler

Appearing online in the Wausau Daily Herald

It is time for state policy-makers to think about taking bus service off the property tax rolls, and there is a simple way to do it.

To frame the issue, urban and rural areas offer different levels of service.  We accept that.  We assume people make choices about the trade-offs between the level of service they want and the level of taxation they are will to pay in choosing where to live.  In theory, everyone pays for the service level they chose to receive.

However, that is a bit of an oversimplification—especially when it comes to bus service.  For many citizens who are unable to drive or cannot afford a vehicle, living in a rural area is not an option.  As a result, the vast majority of people who need transit services from across the state end-up living in cities and villages.  Because the transit-dependent population is not evenly distributed, cities and villages bear a disproportionate share of the costs.

Policy-makers already understand that this migration pattern shifts the costs of supporting the transit-dependent population to urban property taxpayers.  In its January 2013 report, the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission noted that communities in most other states have given options besides property taxes to fund their local share of transit costs.

The commission went on to recommend state legislation authorizing the creation of Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs).  RTAs would be a new level of government.  A community would make a decision whether to join an RTA.  The RTA would have its own elected or appointed board and would take over the responsibility of making decision about transit services from the participating municipalities.  It would also be authorized to raise revenue by imposing up to a half cent sales tax on business conducted within its boundaries.

Politically, giving bus service its very own layer of government is asking for a lot—a lot more than is necessary.

State lawmakers should consider a more modest option.  Skip the RTAs and simply grant municipalities that offer transit services the ability to impose up to a quarter cent sales tax to displace local property taxes used for bus service.

How do the numbers work?  Right now, if you shop in Wausau or anywhere in Marathon County, you pay a 5.50% sales tax.   The 5.00% goes to the state, and the 0.5% goes to Marathon County, providing the county with about $10.1 million annually.  To fund the local share of transit costs in Wausau—roughly $680,000—we would need to add about 0.07% to that sales tax number in the city.

For the Village of Weston, the add-on would be between 0.01% and 0.02% to fund bus service.

Going back to Wausau, a sales tax of 5.57% in town versus 5.50% outside of town should not be a material incentive for shoppers to go elsewhere.  Meanwhile, shifting local transit to the sales tax would reduce property taxes by approximately 3% in the city.

Should we do it?  Maybe.

In any case, we should have the authority to debate and decide the issue at the local level without RTAs.

Funding for transit has been on the back-burner for too long.  This is a simple step that state lawmakers could take in the current budget to provide property tax relief and alleviate the financial stress on local transit systems.

Editors Note:  Keene Winters is an alderman in the City of Wausau and vice chairman of the Wausau Area Transit Commission. Daniel Guild is the administrator for the Village of Weston and is also a member of the Wausau Area Transit Commission.

Shared Services: A Solution for Local Governments

Appearing online in the April 2013 edition of the Business News Online

It’s no secret local governments are experiencing financial challenges. Large economic, technological and political forces are threatening traditional service portfolios. Those of us working in local government management generally expect these forces to be part of a “new normal” that includes shrinking revenues, historic cuts to state-shared revenue programs, budget and subsequent service reductions, public employee labor and salary reforms.

The challenge of managing local agencies in this new environment will require local government to seriously evaluate its service offerings and assess which business practices will be preserved.

As administrator for the Village of Weston, this is a critical business issue for us as well as many other units of local government throughout the state. Because of these challenges, without alternatives, we can expect future services to be reduced or eliminated. Fortunately, I do not think we have reached the point where the only alternative is a choice of have or have not. A preferred strategy that deserves more attention and energy is an effort to merge and consolidate services among multiple communities.

The Village of Weston already has a proven track record with intergovernmental partnerships. The village jointly shares the Everest Metro Police Department with two other local communities. Our Fire and EMS department responds to calls both in and outside of our village. The village’s street department services citizens in both the village and Town of Weston. For Weston, shared services have been one of our strategies to provide existing services at a reduced cost to our taxpayers.

In an effort to build upon this success, we have explored other possibilities including sharing a director of public works management team with the Village of Kronenwetter, sharing a deputy clerk/treasurer with the City of Schofield, participating with the City of Wausau on a study of fire and rescue services throughout our metro area, and conducting a management study with the YMCA to see if it can manage our local aquatic center for less cost than the village can. We will continue to pursue all additional possibilities for shared services in the future.

By comparison, mergers and consolidations are a fixture of competitive practice throughout business and industry. The news has reported on the decision of companies like Office Depot and OfficeMax, as well as U.S. Airways and American Airlines, to merge their corporations. The prevailing wisdom is mergers and acquisitions makes sense. Given the enduring economic stagnation, private businesses must make adjustments to maintain service expectations and enhance profitability. For those who believe the axiom “government should work more like a business,” this approach should be a no-brainer.

Despite many successful, cost-effective examples of municipal service cooperation, the political motivation to explore this strategy as an alternative to our increasing financial challenges remains tepid. There are many reasons for this. Generally, the effort to build teams and create trust in the public sector takes time, involves work, and often boils down to the character, leadership, and future-focus of the people participating in the effort. Specifically, some political leaders fear a reduction in power, oversight and control. Some public employees might attempt to obstruct these efforts out of concern for their employment or because they are concerned about how consolidation could affect and alter the workplace environment. Some citizens might resist because they have a strong emotional attachment to their community and exhibit a strong sense of pride-of-place. They fear service consolidation will translate into the loss of their community’s unique historic identity.

While I realize these are very real concerns, I truly believe municipal service cooperation is an opportunity to improve upon a proven system of service delivery, in which shared oversight among municipal agencies leads to increased opportunities as the cost of providing exclusive services is carried by more consumers. The advantages, in my opinion, far outweigh the concerns, including reduced costs to taxpayers, preservation of traditional and anticipated services levels that have been threatened by reduced revenues, increased opportunities to hire and retain specialists in the local government arena who would otherwise be unaffordable for individual agencies, and sharing talent and expertise to address and solve problems across political boundaries. All this can be done cooperatively and still allow for individual communities to maintain their identities, local elected leaders, local ordinances and separate rates of taxation.

Gov. Walker’s State of the State Speech laid out five priorities for Wisconsin in the next two years, one of which included government reform. With this goal in mind, I can think of no better solution than working with our leaders in Madison, and supporting those who represent us in our local towns, villages, and cities to vigorously pursue cost-saving opportunities. It is my hope local taxpayers will support these efforts and call for action as a means of both preserving quality services and responding to the challenges of decreasing revenues and increasing costs.

Appleton ranks high in “Well-Being” survey

Appleton is one of the best cities in the nation when it comes to overall well-being. That’s according to the annual Gallup-Healthways “Well-Being Index.” Appleton is ranked the second best among the nation’s small cities, and the 10th best overall.

Wisconsin’s well-being is a little above average. The Badger State ranks 22nd. Gallup calls a-thousand Americans a day to ask about their well-being – things like their emotional health, work environment, and eating and exercise habits. They’re also asked how they’re doing financially – and how well they’re getting essentials like food, shelter, and medicine.

Only Charlottesville Virginia rates above Appleton as the small city with the best well-being. Lancaster Pennsylvania was first among all communities. The Twin Cities metro, including far western Wisconsin, is ranked 18th. Madison is 26th, and Green Bay is next in 90th. The Twin Cities is the fourth best among big-city metros.

Hawaii has the best overall well-being as a state. West Virginia ranks last.

State has Team W, Team U and Team D; I’m on Team J

After reading Ken Harwood’s (He is the Executive Director of Lafayette Development Corp and edits and publishes recent article entitled, “Right now, state has Team W, Team U and Team D; I’m on Team J“, I can say without hesitation that I am with Ken and also on Team J!

Wisconsin State Journal: It’s time to stop demonizing public workers

Public Worker Image? – “Is there something wrong with a police officer or a firefighter who regularly has put himself or herself in harm’s way expecting a decent paycheck for that work? Should the teacher who has spent years in college and now works to make something of our kids not receive a fair wage and benefits? Or the crews that get called out on subzero days to fix a water main break? Or the social workers who are called to dangerous places to try to fix our society’s problems? The bottom line is that the private sector needs the public one and vice versa. While there are those who revel in creating schisms between the two for their own selfish ambitions, we’re all in these trying times together. Sure, there are slackers who get jobs in government just as there are slackers in virtually every plant and office in America. But, like most of the workers who toil for private companies, public workers are conscientious and caring, and they don’t deserve to be demonized.” SOURCE – Wisconsin State Journal; 2/8/2012.

Village exploring parks renovation

Assistant Editor Scott De Laurelle of the DeForest Times-Tribune reports on Poynette Village Administrator Daniel Guild’s work with the Poynette Park and Recreation Commission on their first Parks and Open Space Plan.

Village exploring parks renovation (DeForest Times-Tribune; 2/2/2010)

Excerpt: For Guild, it’s all about creating the kind of village people want to move to and stay in. “We’re not going to be Madison, we’re not going to be Portage – we’re a bedroom community, and let’s try to be the best bedroom community we can be,” he said. “You want to have good homes, good schools, some kind of a commercial service sector to provide for some shopping needs, and you want to have amenities for families – parks and recreation, good daycare facilities, opportunities for your children. This ties into that strategy.” “We’re making an investment in not only the community but people’s homes and families, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Excerpt: Trustee Chris Polzer, a member of the parks commission, credited Guild for planning ahead on a “well-thought-out” proposal, but said trustees need to make sure village residents want and can afford the proposed improvements. Trustee Doug Avery, said the village has “key people in place” to make a large parks project successful. He said he understands people are “hurting because of the economy,” but that the village needs to plan for the future. “This is when you should be setting things up, not only planning, but getting the finances in place to do something, and also put a (financial) cushion back where it should be,” he said. “We’ve got a gentleman (Guild) who’s very strong in economic development, we’ve got some new board members who are progressive.

Guild provides options

Assistant Editor Scott De Laurelle of the DeForest Times-Tribune reports on Poynette Village Administrator Daniel Guild work on the 2010 municipal budget and his list of proposals for consideration by the Board of Trustees.

Guild provides options (DeForest Times-Tribune; 10/20/2009)

Caledonia Wisconsin Village Administrator Resigns, Tells Board: “My Tank Is Empty”

After six and a half years of serving as the Village Administrator, Tom Lebak is calling it quits, reported the Caledonia Patch in its article of January 4th, 2012. Rarely does the news media capture and print such frank and candid comments from a local government administrator, like they did here with Tom. Some examples of his quotes include:

“It’s just time,” Lebak said. “Over the holiday when I was off it felt like I was breathing again. My six and a half years here have been a challenge to say the least. However, I feel that I have reached the end of the road, my tank is empty and I do not have much more to give. I feel in my heart that I have done my best and I certainly appreciate the opportunity that I was given to serve the residents of Caledonia.”

For those of us who have had the honor and privilege of serving as a city (or county, village, town) manager (or administrator)  can empathize with these statements. Though I am younger than Tom, and only into my fifth year working in this field I have come to suspect that like me, most of my colleagues are driven by a sense of purpose and inertia that comes from within.

However, and especially so in these crazy economic times, it seems that it is the destiny of most local government managers to eventually burn out, having fought so many battles. I wish Tom the best and I hope that he finds new opportunities to “fill his tank”.

City Manager Shuffle: When and Why do City Managers Job Hop?

While there are certainly a few of my City Manager colleagues in Wisconsin who defy this trend, the pattern for a local government manager’s career have become much more fluid, often taking them all over the country, as the demands for excellence, the intolerance for any failures, and the sheer grind of local politics makes longevity in any one community nearly impossible. This trend will have profound implications as managers will, I forsee, make sacrifices for their families, particularily their kids.

City Manager Shuffle: When and Why do City Managers Job Hop?