Business-like approach benefits Waukesha County, officials say

By Matt Masterson - Freeman Staff

June 12, 2014

WAUKESHA – Just because Waukesha County is not technically a business, that does not mean it can’t be run like one.

Shawn Lundie, the chief of staff for County Executive Dan Vrakas, said every decision county government makes is financially-based – just the way it is with a private sector business.

“We try to operate like a business,” he said. “We value our employees, we value the taxpayers. We appreciate the fact that we are in a low tax environment and a conservative county and we have the conservative leadership and budget to match that.”

For an example, look at the annual budget. The four largest annual expenditures are in perfect alignment with the public’s most important issues, according to county-run focus groups.

Of Waukesha’s $100 million tax levy, 40 percent goes towards justice and law enforcement, 25 percent to Health and Human Services, 11 percent towards public works and 9 percent to parks.

“(Other counties) look at us as a leader,” said Sarah Spaeth, the legislative policy advisor for the County Board Office. “For the WCA, the counties association, they are doing a conference and they wanted somebody to do a high-level budgeting (presentation). The first person they called was (Waukesha County Department of Administration Head) Norm Cummings.”

Harmony between the county board and the county executive has also been a reason why Waukesha is running smoothly, said Lundie. When it comes to drafting the budget – the single largest task each year – Vrakas meets with County Board Chair Paul Decker and the chair of the Finance Committee to iron out any wrinkles before the budget is officially introduced.

“We do not see the county board as an adversary. We see the county board – its members, its staff – as partners,” Lundie said. “When we introduce the budget, one of the things people are usually surprised about it is that we are not Milwaukee County. We do things totally differently around here.”

Lundie noted that Waukesha County has the lowest spending per capita among counties in the state, as well as one of Wisconsin’s three lowest tax rates and the lowest such rate among counties without a county tax.

“We try to be the quiet county,” Lundie said. “We are very, very steady. We try not to do anything dramatic one way or the other, which is why it is interesting whenever there is any sort of conflict, because it is so rare, but we like it that way.’