Vrakas discusses 2015 county budget at town hall-style meeting
Cites shared services as key to addressing budget challenges

By Dave Fidlin - Special to The Freeman

July 29, 2014

WAUKESHA - Few specific numbers have been shared at this point, but Waukesha County officials are kicking off the 2015 budget-building season with a series of public meetings to discuss determining how programs will be funded.

Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas held one such town hall-style meeting Monday at the County Courthouse, which more than a dozen residents attended.

Despite ongoing challenges - including a sharp decline in several income sources and new state mandates - Vrakas and other county leaders sounded an upbeat tone as next year’s budget is assembled.

The county faces a $5.2 million shortfall next year for several reasons, including the cessation of grant funding for several programs. Also, interest income - a once-mighty source of income -continues to decline, even as the economy rebounds.

Adding to the mix is the rise of unfunded state mandates, primarily for criminal justice programs and various court functions. Nearly 46 percent of the county’s 2015 budget is expected to fall into the unfunded mandate category.

But amid the ongoing changes and new regulations, county officials say new, creative methods are being adopted so the county is complying with state laws, remaining fiscally conservative and maintaining existing programs.

One of the county’s greatest tools, Vrakas said, is sharing services with neighboring agencies. The words “cooperation,” “collaboration” and “consultation” were mentioned frequently during the nearly hour-long presentation.

Vrakas described several shared service arrangements that he said have saved the county money. One is a pooled effort between the Waukesha School District and the city of Waukesha.

Describing the arrangement as an “unprecedented step” in governance, Vrakas said the three agencies have worked in tandem with health insurance policy coverage. By Vrakas’ estimation, the county, city and school district together stand to save $7 million in the next three years.

The county also has worked with the city of Milwaukee to lower costs on a new recycling facility as the more advanced single-stream method of collecting refuse grows in popularity. Milwaukee and Waukesha County each will hold its own contract, but are working in tandem as a new facility is constructed.

“Trust goes a long way,” Vrakas said. “When it comes to the city of Milwaukee, Mayor (Tom) Barrett and I have been wanting to work together on a joint project for a long time. We worked together in the Legislature.”

While most of the county’s functions remain in-house, Vrakas said allocating some jobs to the private sector is an issue that continues to be under review.

“We’re not afraid to ask, ‘Can we outsource that?’” Vrakas said.

Vrakas fielded comments from a few people in the audience. These included County Supervisor Duane Paulson, who lauded some of the efforts in recent years to ensure the county remains fiscally strong.

“I’ve been (on the County Board) for 16 years, and I have pride in being in one of the best run counties in the state,” Paulson said. “The best thing a politician can do is hire great people and get out of the way.”