Tuesday, a measure to issue bonds for the $13.5 million remodeling of Mount View Care Center failed at the Marathon County Board by a vote of 24 in favor to 10 opposed with four members absent. While most members voted in support of the bonding, a three-quarters vote of the members-elect of the Board is required under Wisconsin law to issue bonds or promissory notes, (Sec. 67.045 Wis. Stats.)
I strongly supported the project and since I’m now in my 14th term of public office, I also understand that you win some and you lose some. But the manner in which this particular bonding issue failed should give everyone in Marathon County serious cause for pause because it comes off like an act of bad faith on the part of some board members who either don’t understand the significance of acting with consistency or simply didn’t think it was important enough to do that.
This project has been under discussion for years and this past January, the county board passed an “Intent Resolution Regarding Issuance of General Obligation Bonds or Promissory Notes for Nursing Home Project.” By that resolution, the board officially declared its intent to issue bonds for the project and also stated that “At subsequent meetings, the County Board of Supervisors shall take further action to authorize the issuance of the Bonds, approve the details of the Bonds and authorize for the sale of the Bonds.” Barring some incredibly important new factors being introduced, the vote for the bonding should have been perfunctory. A sufficient number of board members had declared policy and their intent to follow through with this project.
There was a full discussion and full understanding that while that initial resolution only required a majority vote, the bonding would require a three quarters vote. It passed with 29 votes in favor, four votes against and five members absent – a three-quarters majority. It may not sound like there was any margin for the upcoming vote on issuing the bonds, but unless we believed that the five missing members were all hard “no” votes and we lost a “yes” along the way, the ice was plenty thick enough to walk on and everyone should have known what they were doing. Here’s some coverage after the January vote. Done deal, right?
Based on the January vote, the project went out for bids. The proposals arrived on time and within the budget. The planning and execution required to reach that point on something of this magnitude is no small thing; the costs were estimated at $668,000.
But then something else came into play, by way of some grievances that some county board members had with the management of North Central Health Care Facilities over the way certain mental health services were being delivered for the jail and perhaps other matters. None of these things had anything to do with the Mount View project. That didn’t matter, because some members had decided that withholding approval of the Mount View bonds would give them greater leverage in the unrelated discussions. These were issues that had been around for a while. And while they certainly didn’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrelated wasted money to support the debate over them, that is what it could cost county taxpayers to place that particular arrow in their quiver.
Health and Human Services Committee Chair John Robinson was concerned about the possibility of the bonding vote failing and he offered an action to delay the vote in an effort to give wavering members time to resolve their issues with NCHC. I did not support the delay because it was clear that this process would take months. The bids on the project would expire and I wasn’t certain that a delay would produce new votes in favor or that a long delay would leave us in a substantially better position than a loss on the bonding measure would anyway. More importantly, I felt that it would be capitulating to a tactic that would set a bad precedent for the board going forward: the inherent claim that it is okay to renege on prior commitments for comparatively weak reasoning. Based on the people we had in the room, it would be necessary for some to act contrary to their vote in January – to not keep their word – in order for the bonding to fail.
And that is exactly what happened.
It doesn’t bother me that several members who opposed the project continued to oppose it, because those negative votes were already baked in. It doesn’t bother me that several members who missed the January meeting voted in opposition, since they hadn’t established a prior position on the matter that should have been tantamount to approving the bonds. What bothers me greatly is that five members – Lee Peek, Matt Bootz, Richard Gumz, Jacob Langenhahn and Alan Christensen – thought it was okay to flip their positions from the January vote and oppose the bonding that they had already agreed to authorize. Some of them felt comfortable enough with it to speak against the project that they had voted to proceed with a few months earlier. The bottom line is that these five votes provided the exact margin of failure and it is fair to place the responsibility for the outcome directly on the people who cast them. In the now infamous words of John Kerry, they were literally ‘for it before they were against it’ — and it is costing time and money.
The Marathon County Board needs to act in good faith and keep its word when it goes out for bids. Members can have their different views, but they should be consistent with them when it comes to asking people to bid major projects and to do business with the county. Instead, some members were perfectly willing to be Lucy, holding the football out for Charlie Brown to try to kick before pulling it away at the last possible moment.
At this point, there are a lot of losers and no apparent winners. Even if the unrelated issues with NCHC end up being resolved — as they almost certainly will — there is no particular reason to believe that it couldn’t have happened without blowing up the Mount View bonding measure on Tuesday. There’s a contractor that should have been given a multi-million job, after complying with the terms of the bidding and submitting the “winning” bid. There are the employees and future residents in what would have been some badly-needed renovated space at Mount View. There are the taxpayers of Marathon County, who would have seen 70 percent of the money for the renovations come back through increased reimbursements for care and who may have also lost the opportunity for the lowest possible interest rates on financing, plus the hundreds of thousands invested already. There are some plumbers, carpenters, electricians, masons, managers and others who would have had jobs doing the work and our community that would have seen some of that money recirculated. We can hope that the project’s financing is eventually approved and the losses from current fiasco won’t be all that large, though it’s risky business.
But the biggest loser is the Marathon County Board, because it lost some serious credibility in a way that should never have happened. It will be a little more difficult to rely on some people going forward and to take them at their word. People can rationalize it any way they want to, but it should take a whole lot more for people of good will and good intentions to abandon important commitments than it did this week at the Marathon County Board.