Wright County Commissioners get in heated argument over 2013 budget

By John Holler

For the last month, it has been known that sitting Wright County Commissioners Pat Sawatzke and Rose Thelen would be squaring off for one commissioner seat in November. At the Sept. 11 meeting of the Wright County Board, the gloves came off and the animosity between the candidates came front and center.

The last item on the board agenda was setting the 2013 draft budget and certified levy. Typically, the resolution to approve the budget and levy takes just a couple of minutes — most of that time being spent reading the numbers that make up the budget. However, the campaign trail came to the board room Sept. 11, as Thelen and Sawatzke argued — at times contentiously for 45 minutes, forcing two other commissioners to call the question on a vote three different times.

At the heart of the debate was Thelen’s assertion that the county is understaffing the human services department, which she termed as “inhumane.” She asked why the county isn’t staffing the request for six additional human services employees, while, at the same time, funding positions that have remained vacant for four years.

“It’s a shell game,” Thelen said. “We have $645,000 a year budgeted for vacant positions that aren’t filled and provide nothing. That has happened since 2008 and was in place when I joined the board in 2009. As we do the budget for 2013, it’s a total of $3.5 million that has been budgeted on nothing. They are phantom positions. I’m voting against this budget because I think it’s bogus.”

The argument over how positions would be staffed, centering on the hiring of a human resources director in the county coordinator’s office got heated as Thelen and Sawatzke made accusations about the other’s fiscal responsibility and commitment to the taxpayers of the county. Sawatzke accused Thelen of grandstanding and bringing their election battle into the board room,

“Commissioner Thelen, you’re the one who ambushed the board here today,” Sawatzke said. “You talk about people who are suffering. The taxpayers are suffering. Let people who are working every day to make ends meet get a break from paying higher taxes.”

The other commissioners expressed frustration as Sawatzke and Thelen exchanged barbs and rebutted statements made by the other for the next half hour and the accusations became more personal. On three different occasions, a commissioner “called the question” — typically which ends debate and calls for an immediate vote. When the vote finally was taken, the draft budget and levy was approved on a 3-2 vote — with Sawatzke and Thelen voting against it.

The board approved the official draft budget/levy numbers. The budget total is $102,876,775 – a 2.7 percent increase over 2012, with most of the increase being related to road and bridge projects. The draft levy (the amount paid by taxpayers) was set at $50,574,019 — the same amount as in 2012. Once it was approved, the figures can’t go up any higher. However, they can be reduced between now and the end of the year when the final budget and levy will be approved.

In other items on the Sept. 11 agenda, the board:

SET the annual Truth In Local Taxation public hearing for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27 at the county boardroom.

RECEIVED the 2012 county jail inspection report. The county was found to be compliant in 112 of 113 mandatory items and all 103 essential items on the inspection. The one item in which the jail wasn’t in compliance was a written disaster plan that has since been completed. The state authorized the jail to operate until Sept. 30, 2014.

BY a 4-1 vote, approved proceeding with grant requests for the latest land purchase for the Bertram Chain of Lakes Park project. The vote was significant in that it was the first time in more than a dozen votes on the parks project that Commissioner Dick Mattson voted in favor of the proposal. Mattson has consistently voted against spending county money for parks acquisitions, but said he would vote in favor of this proposal if Parks Administrator Marc Mattice would guarantee that the county would set park fees to generate revenue to offset the ongoing maintenance costs that will be associated with the park once it is opened for public use. To date, Wright County has spent $2.3 million in local match funds for the project and has received more than $3.6 million in grants to date. The latest purchase is expected to receive $2 million in legacy grant funding and require a county match of $110,875 — a little more than 5 percent of the total cost. Commissioner Jack Russek maintained his track record of voting against the purchases.

AWARDED the Safe Routes to School Project in the City of Montrose to Omann Brothers Paving in the amount of $190,255. The low bid was more than 10 percent above the engineer’s estimate for the project and was approved after the city agreed to pick up all costs above and beyond the projected amount.

SCHEDULED a labor management health insurance committee meeting for Wednesday, Sept. 26. No time specific was announced.

AWARDED the bid for removal of floating bogs on Locke Lake in Silver Creek Township to J.L. Schmitz & Sons Excavating, which submitted the low bid of $4,295. Three bids were received for the bog removal, the highest being approximately $8,000.