Walworth County Government Today: Road to a new county budget includes interesting side trips
I spent Labor Day weekend putting the finishing touches on the first draft of the county's 2016 budget. Known as the administrator's budget, the document was presented to the county board on Sept. 8. While staff has been working on the budget for months, September marks the start of a nine-week process during which the county board will modify the plan before adopting a final budget in November.
At the risk of offending accountants, reading pages of budget numbers can be fairly tedious. Since 2006, in an attempt to make the document a little more interesting, I have included a series of short stories in my letter that accompanies and explains the budget. These short stories, which are called “sidebars” in my office at least, are about one-third of the length of this column. I usually try to include a photo, as well. Depending on the year and my mood at the time, the sidebars may reinforce a theme in the proposed budget or may just cover a topic that I think is interesting. An example of the former was a series of seven stories describing the origins and key stakeholders in the Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee when I proposed increasing funding for treatment courts in 2013. Sidebars the next year profiled citizens who were serving on county committees.
In addition to educating readers of our budget and giving them a break from all of the numbers, I look forward to writing the sidebars for the same reasons. I usually learn something new about the county in the process of writing them. This year, the topic of the sidebar stories was the county's highway system, which happened to coincide with a major theme of the 2016 budget that I proposed.
For my background research, I relied on a homegrown publication titled “History of Walworth County Departments.” This book contains a chapter recounting the history of each county department. It was written and produced “in house” sometime in the mid-1980s. Each department took its own approach to the task of writing its history. Some played it very conservatively, reciting each office holder of the particular department and little else. Others took a more creative approach. The chapter of the sheriff's office, which accounts for about one-quarter of the book, literally begins in the year 700 A.D. with the appointment of the first Shire Reeves by the Saxons. The highway department's chapter is by far the most entertaining. In addition to covering the basics, the short chapter relates a number of anecdotes including one about a former worker who, “having a bit more to drink than he could handle,” threw a chair through one of the windows in his home. When asked to explain why he did it, he told the police that his wife wanted more air in the house.
I'm not sure about the accuracy of the very early history contained in the book, but I tend to give significant weight to information about the 1930s, for example. I believe this is true from my own experience of talking to county retirees over the years. An employee who retired in 1984, about the time when the book was written, may well have started his or her career in the 1950s and was told stories from folks who started with the county 30 years or more before then.
It seems likely that at the time “History of Walworth County Departments” was written, one or more employees who contributed to it had worked under the county's first highway commissioner, H.J. Peters. In a county that has a history of long-tenured officials, I have always been especially fascinated by Peters. A native son of Walworth County, Peters grew up in Sharon and attended the University of Wisconsin, where he received a degree in civil engineering. His career with the county almost didn't get off the ground. It took three ballots before the board elected him highway commissioner in 1911.
What makes Peters' story so interesting to me is not the length of his service (over 45 years) but the sweeping changes that took place during his tenure and the impact that he had on the county, which remains to this day. To put this history in car terms, the roads Peters built were driven on by the first Model T's and the first Corvettes. Most of the county roads that we drive on today were the result of Commissioner Peters' planning. In addition to the road system, Peters' ideas about highway operations have endured the test of time. He opted to leave road construction to private contractors and focused instead on using county crews for maintenance activities. Subsequent highway commissioners and county boards followed this approach and it is still the way we do things today.
Budget season is officially underway. You can follow the process by visiting the county's website at co.walworth.wi.us. Key budget documents will be posted there from now until November and if you get tired of looking at them, take some time to read more about H.J. Peters and the development of the county's highway system.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.