Walworth County Government Today: Local governments really do work together

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Dave Bretl | November 7, 2016

One concern that I sometimes hear from people is why there isn't more cooperation among the many different units of local government in our county. Many folks are under the impression that local leaders are always feuding and I understand why they feel this way. Newspapers are quick to point out the conflicts, but rarely run stories about cooperative efforts that take place on a daily basis. Last week, I attended meetings of two organizations that are dedicated to improving communication and cooperation throughout the county.

On Oct. 25, the Walworth County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council met at the government center in Elkhorn. The ICC was established in 2008. Its membership includes the chief elected officials from each town, city and village in the county.  The group meets three to four times each year to share information and discuss issues of common interest. Our recent meeting featured a report on Farm Technology Days as well as a discussion about conservation easements.

Peg Reedy, our University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture educator, talked about Farm Technology Days, hosted by Snudden Farms in the town of Linn. Peg played an integral role in organizing the agricultural tradeshow that took place in July.  Although attendance was somewhat lower than expected due to high temperatures, the show still attracted some 30,000 visitors. Peg shared the fact that two-thirds of the attendees were full or part-time farmers. Most of the attendees were from Wisconsin (78 percent) while Illinois residents accounted for 16 percent of the total attendance. The remaining 6 percent came from other states and even other countries. Aside from its economic impact, Farm Technology Days helped develop future leaders in our county.  By the time the show had finished its three-day run, about 1,100 volunteers had participated.

The next topic on the ICC agenda was conservation easements. A panel of experts assembled by the Geneva Lake Conservancy provided basic information on the subject as well as an update regarding land preservation efforts in our county. The Geneva Lake Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and advocating for Walworth County waterways, natural areas and working lands.

As the panelists explained, conservation easements are legally binding agreements that prevent development from taking place on land. One type of conservation easement restricts the use of land to farming. Conservation easements are binding on future purchasers and are often perpetual. In Wisconsin, at least, these easements are created primarily through donations. A property owner, for example, may want to continue to own his or her land but would like it preserved in a natural state for future generations. The easement, which is held by a group like the Geneva Lake Conservancy, ensures that the land is never developed. Landowners are often motivated out of a sense of altruism. Because they are giving up something of significant value (the right to sell the land without the encumbrance) they may be entitled to a tax deduction. In addition to donations, easements can be purchased from property owners by conservation groups or even local governments. I was interested to learn that more than 2,200 acres of land in our county are held in conservation easements.

On Oct. 27, it was my turn to make a presentation at the Walworth County Towns Unit meeting. That group is comprised of officials from the 16 towns in our county. Clayton Montez from the town of East Troy invited me to provide an update regarding the county's plan to assist local governments in better coordinating the delivery of fire and emergency medical service. Fire and EMS are the responsibility of each town, city and village and there is no plan to change that.

Instead, at the request of many local governments, the county has agreed to organize and provide some funding to study the issue. If approved by the county board later this month, the county will appoint a committee to study the issue and will make up to $35,000 available for the group to use to assist it in making its recommendations. The committee will be comprised of one representative from a town, city and village and the county as well as three fire and EMS professionals.

Although there will always be points of disagreement between local officials, groups like the ICC and the county towns unit continue to find areas of common ground.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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