County’s big-ticket purchases receive careful scrutiny
It didn’t seem like it was that many years ago that visits to the garage or a veterinarian were pretty straightforward transactions. The dog was de-wormed or the “U-joint” replaced, and I got a receipt showing me the work that had been done. The mechanic usually handed me one of those blurry, handwritten, carbonless forms. I seem to remember even being able to pay in cash, most times. Today, settling up for both of these transactions reminds me of a real estate closing, or at least, a real estate closing when those were simple.
Aside from the price of car and dog repairs, which rival mortgage payments, I’m handed a computer-generated stack of paperwork when I leave. I’m fine with all of the detail that pertains to the work for which I am paying. What is depressing, however, is the long “punch list” of recommended services that apparently need to be performed, but which they figure I can’t or won’t spring for, at the time. There is clearly an element of marketing in all of these pages. Some of the suggestions seem so frivolous that I can’t even read them with a straight face.
In fairness to my vet and mechanic, however, I should take their suggestions in the spirit in which they were offered. Even though I might be disappointed with the prognosis, I shouldn’t shoot the messenger. The list allows me to anticipate and prioritize upcoming expenses, and if I ever find myself with a little extra cash, I might just spring for that new serpentine belt for the van or “Tommy John” surgery for my dog, Max.
Walworth County attempts to prioritize its big-ticket expenses through a capital improvement planning process. Our CIP covers a five-year period. The plan is approved, each year, with the annual budget; however, only projects in the first year of the plan are funded. Even those typically require additional votes, particularly when it comes to approving construction contracts or borrowing money.
Just because a project is on the list doesn’t mean it will happen. A case in point was our recently planned jail expansion. Supervisors had serious reservations about the projected price of $10 million, but kept the project in the CIP because it was our only option at the time. Walworth County’s jail population was projected to exceed available space within a few years. Rather than accepting the expansion as a foregone conclusion, however, the county board, sheriff and criminal justice coordinating committee spent the next two years figuring out better options. An electronic monitoring system for work-release offenders and a driving while intoxicated court were developed. As a result of these new programs, the expansion was taken off of the CIP.
Our CIP process is, by no means, on the cutting edge. Most local governments have some type of long-range plan. Given where the county began, however, the fact that we have a CIP, at all, is a good thing. A decade or so ago, Walworth County’s CIP was a relatively new, and not universally appreciated plan. Like my initial reaction to the long list of suggested repairs, some supervisors viewed the process with hostility and suspicion. To borrow from the old Arabian folk story, putting a new building on the five-year plan was viewed as the camel putting its nose under the tent. If it was allowed in the five-year plan, even for merely planning purposes, it was reasoned that the whole camel would soon be inside the tent. Rather than serving as a starting point for discussing alternatives, the plan became a source of conflict.
Capital improvement planning makes good sense for several reasons:
-- Finding the money. By definition, projects that make it on the CIP are tangible and expensive. They typically involve “bricks and mortar,” but increasingly, computer servers and large information technology projects are showing up on the list. The five-year plan provides plenty of time to figure out how to fund each project. Current tax levy, the general fund balance and debt are the most common methods.
-- Priorities. By putting all of the projects on a single list, projects can be compared to each other rather than each being viewed in a vacuum. It’s fine to discuss expanding a parking lot, but it’s important to keep in mind that other projects, such as an aging bridge or failing highway, need to be dealt with, as well.
-- Avoiding surprises. A good CIP can help avoid the kind of crises that can disrupt operations and cause additional expense. The only thing worse than having to replace the boiler system, something the county is currently doing at our health and human services building, is having to do it in the middle of January, after it has failed.
Our formal capital planning process for 2013 through 2017 will begin this month. Staff from our public works department will meet with various county departments to determine their needs for the next five years. The public works director will then prioritize the requests and place them in the plan. If there were no unforeseen circumstances and the departments have been proactive in their planning, most of the new requests will land in the fifth year of the new plan. I take the next look at the draft CIP before presenting it to the board, along with the 2013 operating budget, on Sept. 6.