Local governments gaining traction with cooperation
By Steve Sharp - firstname.lastname@example.org
JEFFERSON — As Jefferson County addresses what its administrator Ben Wehmeier called “big policy issues,” its county board Chairman Jim Schroeder weighed in on how he views the modern-day interplay among the county, school districts, law enforcement and municipalities and how it should continue to evolve.
“This topic is important to us,” Schroeder told the Daily Times. “I believe it makes for an interesting and topical story.”
As others have done in this series, Schroeder credited Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier with encouraging positive interaction among elements of county government and communities.
Prior to his service on the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors, Schroeder built a background of work as a member of the media in Jefferson County and remembers the days when Jefferson County University of Wisconsin-Extension agent Steve Grabow, now retired, was a major, game-changing initial proponent of intergovernmental cooperation around the turn of the millennium.
“Over the past five years, local governments really began to gain traction in cooperating with each other for the benefit of all our constituents,” Schroeder said. “I attribute this progress to a county administrator who actively reached out to his counterparts within and beyond Jefferson County. We have found that cities, villages, towns and other counties always welcome a conversation about how we can cooperate for the benefit of all. Another impetus for cooperation has been necessity. As local government budgets get tighter, we are compelled to seek greater efficiencies, and intergovernmental cooperation is an important tool in our box.”
Schroeder said it’s been his pleasure to work with what he called “Watertown’s mayoral tag team” of John David and Ron Krueger.
“They’ve been, at the same time, effective advocates for Watertown and valuable teammates in promoting economic development regionwide,” he said.
Schroeder said he feels he has good relationships with every chief elected official in Jefferson County, and every county board chairman in south central Wisconsin and beyond.
“When we talk, we learn from each other and sometimes it leads to an opportunity for working together,” he said.
According to Schroeder, even the sometimes divisive state level of government and politics is not a barrier to intergovernmental cooperation in Jefferson County.
“We have good relationships with state elected officials and agencies,” he said. “We put partisan politics aside and work with whomever is elected to do those jobs in Madison. Going forward, we look to have more conversations with state government about how it can help us further advance intergovernmental cooperation.”
Watertown Mayor John David said it is his belief intergovernmental cooperation really began when budgets tightened.
“We started to see fire departments merge and police departments disband and contract with sheriff departments,” he said. “It is not unusual for larger communities to provide fire protection and EMS services to their smaller neighbors. We do that for the townships around Watertown. The state of Wisconsin was encouraging cooperation and consolidation for a few years. Many years ago, the cities in Jefferson County along with Jefferson County governmental officials decided to collaborate on economic development. That has evolved into a two-county organization called THRIVE. There is strength in numbers.”
David also said Grabow was a great promoter of working together toward a common goal.
“I think the single biggest example of cooperation is the economic development efforts involving Dodge and Jefferson counties,” David said. “This effort helps to bring business and jobs to both counties for the benefit of all of our residents. The effort is also instrumental with helping businesses expand in the two-county area. I think we may see some consolidation of fire departments and EMS services.”
David mentioned there has been an increasing focus in the media regarding how Wisconsin’s city governments are, in some cases, at the financial breaking point. He said other funding sources will have to be found for all municipalities soon or they will “be at that breaking point.”
“The other option is to ease the burden of expenditure restraint and levy limits,” he said.
Augie Tietz, Watertown city alderman and Jefferson County District 4 supervisor representing wards 9 and 10 in Watertown, has been busy during his time in office being the living embodiment of linking governments together to create efficiencies. He has spearheaded the interurban bike and recreational trail that runs east from Watertown and will eventually link the city with Milwaukee’s lakefront.
“All of these ideas go back to about 2000, when we started putting Jefferson County economic development back together,” Tietz said. “Economic development had been in deep trouble until then and we sat down again around the table with the various communities.”
Tietz stressed the county and city of Watertown worked hard together to make the interurban bike trail happen.
“That is the big one,” he said. “And you can see it more with THRIVE economic development corporation getting together in Dodge and Jefferson counties.”
As time progresses, Tietz said, he sees more opportunities for governments to work together.
“I think it is the thing of the future,” he said. “I am on the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission that is made up of eight counties around the south-central area and that just points to more of these types of things occurring.”
Tietz became involved in local government when former Watertown Mayor Fred Smith appointed him to the Watertown Parks Commission in the mid-1990s. When he joined the county board in 2010, he said he had a friend ask him about the then-proposed interurban trail “and pretty soon we got it rolling. Then the Glacial Heritage Area was realized in the county and surrounding areas.”
Tietz also noted Dodge and Jefferson counties are teaming up in the area of health care.
“That encompasses Dodge and Jefferson county health departments, as well as area hospitals and others,” Tietz said.
Tietz expects the benefits of intergovernmental cooperation will continue here.
“It leads to efficiencies. The word ‘consolidation’ comes to mind and that is the thing of the day,” Tietz said. “There are dollars to be saved when you do that. Sometimes it isn’t the best for all employees, but in the end it does save money. You have more money to put together to have a bigger effect.”
Gail Scott is the longtime director of the Jefferson County Health Department. She said her department is involved in systems building and working together with many organizations and other county departments on behalf of families.
“We are currently involved with the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation in promoting the Talk/Read/Play community awareness campaign,” she said. “Talk/Read/Play teaches parents about brain development in their children, how to create more brain-building opportunities and enhance quality adult-child interactions. We will be using this at home visits with families to create a strong foundation for learning. This is part of the ‘Every Child Thrives’ initiative.”
Scott said the health department is also working with Fort HealthCare, Jefferson County Human Services, Jefferson County Parks and the Jefferson County Drug Free Coalition in applying for a Healthy Communities designation. This highlights community and health care-related programs throughout Jefferson County.
“We will hear this summer if we are chosen,” she said.
Jefferson and Dodge counties, along with the city of Watertown, are working on producing a Community Health Improvement Plan. The top three priority areas identified are obesity/nutrition/physical activity, substance abuse and mental/behavioral health.
“There is much work being done, including promoting the WIC Program and breast feeding, many activities being done by the Drug Free Coalition and looking at reducing the stigma of mental health, increasing community awareness and providing a resource guide,” she said.
The health department is also working with community partners for emergency preparedness and response to outbreaks.
“There is a variety of programs, services and partnerships,” Scott said, “because we can’t do it alone.”