Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kewaunee County Board Activities – October 13, 2014

It has been a while since I have issued an update as to the happenings in Kewaunee County with relation to county government.  I will admit, being the chairman of the board has taken a lot of my time, but I do feel good about the overall direction the county is headed. 

Kewaunee County Board
I am happy to report that your new board of supervisors is hard at work to change the course of the county.  It is indeed refreshing to go to committee meetings and hear the committee members ask good questions, having meaningful dialogue and taking actions on issues rather than kicking the can down the road.  Your involvement as concerned citizens have caused the changes on the board.  Government can work (although slower than I’d like), if, and when citizens get involved.

Kewaunee County Public Health and Groundwater Protection Ordinance #173-9-14
For some time in our county, we have been experiencing groundwater problems with an inordinate number of wells being polluted.  For example, in May of 2014, 556 different wells throughout Kewaunee County were tested and we found 29.7% of these wells were not safe for human consumption due to presence of coliform bacteria and/or nitrates above the human health standard of 10 parts per million.

These kind of results are indeed worrisome as if allowed to continue will have injurious impact on the health of our residents, not to mention land values in our county.  Also, without cleaning up our water our tourism growth will be negatively impacted.  We already have billboards being sponsored by some anonymous folks that are already causing harm to our county’s tourism growth.

Your board faced this problem head-on starting out with meetings with DNR and DATCP officials in Madison.  At that meeting, both the Secretary of DATCP and the Secretary of DRN committed to helping Kewaunee County begin to solve this problem.  The general approach of those agencies is “we have regulations and statutes imposed by the legislature.  We have to follow those regulations, we cannot treat one county differently than another county”.  However, they did commit to helping us in any way they could.  So, the land and water committee, along with a lot of hard work by Andy Wallander, crafted and passed a new Public Health and Groundwater ordinance through to the full board.   Following the first reading of that ordinance and a well-attended public hearing, the final ordinance went to the full board for passage on Sep 23rd.  It passed with all board members voting in favor of the ordinance. 

Next steps in implementing the ordinance in the county will be; each township will have to have a referendum on their ballots in the spring of 2015 elections.  If the individual townships adopt the ordinance, in Jan 2016 the actual implementation of the ordinance would occur.  Basically the ordinance changes the way manure is applied to certain Karst featured land in our county which represents 6 or 7% of the counties total land.  A very short explanation of the ordinance is; no manure (liquid or otherwise) will be allowed to be applied on soil that is less than 20 feet to bedrock for the period of Jan 1 – Apr 15. 

So what is the long-term fix for our Groundwater Problems?
First we have to recognize, Agriculture has been, and will be, the major business of our county.  Dairy and beef operations will continue to grow in herd size.  Although a pleasant thought, I do not see a rebirth of small farms, for that is not a realistic expectation.  We have a very large number of cows in our county, and on a daily basis, they produce millions of gallons of liquid manure.
Several decades ago, DATCP encouraged farmers to build manure pits for storage rather than stacking manure.  To efficiently handle getting the manure to the pits, barns were washed down with a whole lot of water, which in the end, only increases the number of gallons of manure that are produced on a daily basis.  Now that manure has to be hauled from the pits, transported from the farms to fields that are sometimes miles from the originating farm and sometimes in adjacent counties. 

A large number of farmers in Kewaunee County have nutrient management plans and follow those plans closely as they apply their liquid manure.  It is difficult, however, to apply the nutrients in liquid manure scientifically.  Although the manure is tested at the pit for nutrient content, the application on the fields is broadcast.  Let me try to explain this.  Technology has existed for some time that provides farmers GPS coordinates for each type of nutrient required for a specific spot on a field.  When applying granulated fertilizer (slow release), this can be accomplished.  However, when applying liquid manure this cannot be done.  Therefore, if a farmer is spreading the required amount of potassium, it could be the nitrogen and phosphate levels might be too high.  By the way, it seems nitrates are one of the biggest problems with the wells that are polluted in Kewaunee County.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a day trip to Lansing Michigan to Michigan State University to view some of the latest technology for treating large volumes of manure.  These systems provide processing for organic waste treatment.  We visited both Digested Organics and McLanahan facilities while in Lansing.  At one farm they were wet vacuuming (like a street sweeper) up manure from 200 cows and treating that manure each day.  At the end of the process was reusable/irrigatable water and segregated dried caked material that contained the nutrient value (nitrogen/phosphates/potassium) of the manure.  That caked material could be further dried and could be pelletized as a slow release solid fertilizer. 

The following companies displayed their systems at the World Dairy Expo being held in Madison this past week.  Each has their own strengths and weaknesses when dealing with the large volumes of liquid manure coming off farms now days.  Following, I have provided links to their websites if you care to read up on them on your own.  Digested Organics (DO) (www.digestedorganics.com), (www.mclanahan.com), and www.biofermenergy.com is another company that is working in this space.  Initial investigation as to costs and financing these systems revealed there are both Federal and State funds that could be made available for these projects.
Our next steps in managing our ground water
Most importantly, we have to work in our own county to insure good communication with our farmers while the various townships adopt and implement the groundwater ordinance passed by the county.  Simultaneously, as local government officials, we must work closely with all entities in the Ag Industry.  We must have open dialogue and partner with the industry to work towards common, unified solutions that will both protect our ground water while allowing for continued growth in the industry.  And, we will have to work with the DNR, DATCP and the State Legislature to ensure they are aware of the local developments and are aware of our issues and are considering all options. 
More, specifically, for example, if it is determined we need more manure treatment systems on our farms, we must work with State Government to explore assistance in financing for these systems.  Perhaps we will determine several smaller community digesters make more sense in the long run.  These could even be run as cooperatives.  We don’t have all the answers at this point, for sure, but with time we will find the right answers.
Another idea that is being worked on in the overall management of our groundwater would include a groundwater recharge monitoring system.  Simply stated, this would be a system that has ground probes that monitor the groundwater flow, also systems monitoring the flow of septic systems.  This data is then compared to upcoming rain events and we could better inform our farmers when it is safe to spread in order to avoid the major groundwater recharge events. 
AS most of you know, Andy Wallander, who has headed up Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation has retired.  Ed Dorner, has appointed Davina Boness to replace Andy as the new Conservationist for the County.  Davina has done a good job for the county under Andy and now has the challenges of implementing the new groundwater ordinance and working with all parties to ensure we work to improve Kewaunee County’s groundwater in the future…not to mention all the other duties she will now have.  It is important we all work with Davina to ensure her success.
County Tax Rate – going down
The 2014 county tax rate is $7.77 per thousand of assessed valuation placing Kewaunee County at the 5th highest tax rate in the state of the 72 counties.  In 2013, the rate was also $7.77.   Now for a bit of good news.  The Finance Committee met last week and were able to agree on a budget that will reduce our county tax rate to $7.59 for 2015.  Providing the full board approval of this budget, this will be the first time since 2005 that we have moved the county tax rate down rather than up!
Why are our taxes as high as they are?
Your individual real estate tax rates are a combination of the county tax, school tax, township or municipality taxes and the tax for NWTC.  Kewaunee County, not so dissimilar to other counties find themselves having to provide services mandated by the state or federal government and in some instances there is no source of revenue trailing the mandate and we have no legitimate means of increasing our taxes other than implementing a local sales tax.
Something you may not know.  Nearly 77% of our land in the county is assessed at either Agriculture, Agricultural Forest or Productive Forest.  The assessment for these properties is controlled by the state and they were set back in 1998.  Ag Land in Kewaunee County alone represents 135,719 acres or 62.56% of the 216,957 total acreage in the county.  All this land is assessed at a total value of $25,371,000 or an average of $186.94 per acre, then it is assessed at 1.77%, so the average tax per acre is $1.45 per acre or $58.10 per 40 acres.  Did you catch that, 135,719 acres, average value of $186.94 per acre with assessed value of just over $25 million?  Point is, because of the nature of our business in the county, we have no control over 77% of the land values in the county.
Our demographics are changing and our population has actually decreased in the past couple years.  In 2010, our population was 20,574 and in 2013, 20,505 a decrease of 69 people.  No 2014 numbers are available, but my hunch is we have decreased even more than that.  These numbers come from the United States Census Bureau.  What is interesting is that only 5.4% of our county population is between the ages of 1-5 while 18.2% of the county is over 65.  Overall in the state, the average of people over 65 represents 14.8%.  The only area that has seen any significant growth in the county is Luxemburg Village with a 32.9% population growth since the year 2000.  Why the growth in Luxemburg?  One reason, the proximity to Green Bay.  Yes, there are new or expanding businesses in Luxemburg, but again, that can be attributed somewhat to the availability of manpower.
Generally speaking it appears Kewaunee County is turning into both a retirement area and a bedroom community for Green Bay.  Our schools in Kewaunee and Algoma used to have graduating classes well in excess of 100 students.  Now, we have Algoma with graduating class sizes lower than 50 (see algomahighschool.com) and Kewaunee with class sizes in the 70’s, is it time to visit the idea of combining schools?  Although this is probably not an idea that is widely accepted, one has to consider the financial viability of continuing the current direction we are headed.  Given the smaller class sizes, it is more and more difficult to offer a full curriculum and specialty classes.
I keep coming to the same conclusion, that is, the one area this county has that we can build upon is tourism.  To do that we need to have all the tourism entities in the county pulling in the same direction.  Perhaps it is time to have a county-wide tourism commission that directs the county’s tourism efforts.  Tourism in this county will not grow while we have a very small number of citizens putting up billboards informing visitors they are likely to be affected with MRSA and Anthrax.  It is now time for those billboards to come down!  Yes there should be public outrage concerning our groundwater and surface water, but at the same time, there should be public outrage to having billboards that are suggesting you will become ill if you get out of your vehicle and step on the ground in Kewaunee County!

Dominion Negotiations
The closure of the Kewaunee Nuclear Plant has caused a serious financial blow to our county.  Kewaunee Co. annually receives $713K (about 6.5% of the total Kewaunee Co. levy limit) from the State, for the power agreement that is in place with Dominion.  The entire $713K was at risk if Carlton Township stayed with the $500M plus assessment they had put on the plant.  Cooler heads prevailed and with cooperation of Carlton Township, the Department of Revenue and Dominion, it appears that we may end up with a shortfall of about $100K for 2015 if we can finalize a deal we have negotiated with Dominion.  All in for the County and Carlton, Dominion has agreed to contribute nearly $9 million over the next 10 years.  There are I’s to be dotted an t’s to cross on this agreement, but all in, I believe it is a good deal for the county.  Keep in mind, Dominion did not have to provide any relief for us. 

County Employee Health Insurance
After a lot of hard work by the Finance Committee and a group of County Employee Participants, adjustments were made to the County Employee Health program.  Part of the process was a total review of the claims and overall usage of the insurance.  Unfortunately we have a number of enrollees who have experienced health issues that have driven up the overall health insurance claims.  This has a negative impact overall as it has a direct impact on the premiums we pay.  In 2015, the county employees (except those protected employees, i.e. Sheriff and Jail staff) will begin paying 15% of their insurance premium.  For the past 15 or so years, they were required to pay 10%.  I appreciate the efforts of both the Finance Committee and the Employee group that worked on this project.  Next step is to evaluate the effects of implementing a wellness program for our employees.

Hiring New Administrative Coordinator
Currently, Kewaunee County has a County Administrator in the name of Ed Dorner.  Mr. Dorner will be retiring at the end of the year and we will be hiring a new person to head up the county.  We have options as to how we replace this position, and the personnel committee has chosen to place a resolution to the board in November to change from an Administrator to an Administrative Coordinator.

In Wisconsin, there are three options to County Administration.  One is an elected County Executive, another is County Administrator and the third is an Administrative Coordinator.  An Executive position is an elected official serving four years at a time.  Both the Administrator and Administrative Coordinator are appointed in the county by a majority of the board.  The difference between a County Administrator and an Administrative Coordinator is the degree of power to run the county.  For example, the Administrator’s limits of powers are set in state stat 59.18 and to simplify the description of the Administrators power, the board of supervisors hires the Administrator and the Administrator by virtue of power granted under State Stat 59.18 runs the county.  Whereas the powers of the Administrative Coordinator can be set and altered by the board of supervisors. 

In our situation, where we are hiring a total unknown, it is much more prudent to initially hire an Administrative Coordinator and have the board retain certain controls until such time the board has confidence in that Coordinator.  At that time a board resolution is all that is required to change the Administrative Coordinator to Administrator.   For example, when Ed Dorner was appointed as the Administrator, he had already served 20 plus years as the County Clerk, then he was appointed by the board to be the Administrative Coordinator.  It wasn’t until after several months as Coordinator the Board chose to change his title and responsibilities to that of Administrator.  Currently 53% of all counties in Wisconsin (38 of 72) operate their counties with an Administrative Coordinator so this is not an unusual scenario.

County Tourism
Kewaunee County currently does not have a unified approach to tourism promotion.  Individual entities do some advertising for their businesses to generate some tourism business for the county.  I would like to see a countywide tourism commission that deals with this as if we are ever going to make any headway on tourism in this county it has to be a unified effort.

The Kewaunee County Economic Development Corporation, KCEDC is a separate corporation that has its own board of directors and is not under the control of the county in any way.  The county has, however been contributing $40K a year to the KCEDC to assist in their growth and sustenance.  In the 2015 budget we once again will provide the $40K to KCEDC, but we will require $20K of our current funding for the KCEDC to be applied to direct consumer tourism advertising in certain origin markets to create interest in our County as a destination.  Concurrently we will begin to hold meetings with the various tourism entities so we can create a full blown tourism plan.