County board downsizing plan heading to voters

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 21, 2006, 10:38 a.m.)

It looks like Walworth County voters will go to the polls in April and decide if they want the county board reduced from 25 members to 11 starting in 2008.

The Walworth County Citizens for Responsible Government Chapter turned in 2,611 signatures Friday with a petition calling for the board's reduction via referendum.

The county clerk's office still needs to verify those signatures for authenticity. The CRG, a taxpayer's protection group, needed 2,086 valid signatures to have the question on the spring 2007 ballots.

"It's amazing to hear what's all being said out there. It's great for us. It really is," said chapter Chairman Bret Strong. "It gives us a sense of fulfillment. Now that we've touched these people that are behind us, the people out there are understanding what's going on in the county."

The group petitioned for the board's reduction because it feels spending is out of control. The board had proposed a 9.55 percent tax levy increase before making cuts to lower the increase to 6.18 percent.

"It's going to give us better control of the budget and better control of people on board," Strong said of a smaller board, if approved. "It's a lot easier to track 11 than 25."

A board reduction isn't popular with every supervisor, however.

"Why would anybody want to make a radical decision like that without research and analysis," Supervisor David Weber said. "Just to change for the sake of changing because one faction says it's best, I'm sorry, I don't buy that."

Supervisor Jim Van Dreser viewed the reduction attempt as an effort to punish the board.

"I don't think it's a step forward. I think it's a step back," Van Dreser said.

In June, the board voted 12-10 to not discuss three supervisors' idea to downsize to 21 members, a proposal made to negate Citizens for Responsible Government's earlier effort to have a reduction to 15 members.

Going to fewer board members would mean less representation of citizens, particularly from rural areas, some supervisors said.

For example, town residents have argued for years that they are not represented enough on the County Zoning Agency, a committee that makes decisions on changes to land uses, Supervisor Dorothy Burwell said. Reducing the board to 11 increases the chance that a disproportionate number of city-dwelling supervisors would represent the county's rural citizens, Burwell said.

The county will have to redraw district lines after the 2010 census. Burwell thought it best if the issue is looked at then.

It needs to happen now," Strong said.

"We can't afford to wait. Every day in office with these supervisors is more money out of my pocket," he said.

Weber said the board didn't discuss the reduction to 21 members because it needed more time for analysis before doing something so permanent.

"I'd like to have an opportunity, instead of being rushed into this, to have an investigative process that will find out the best net result," Weber said. "If there are real cost savings to be generated then (I'd support it) probably. If it's all just to meet some particular person or faction's wishes, then I don't think so."

With a county population of about 98,000, each of the 25 supervisors represents about 3,920 constituents.

Reducing to 11 members would mean representation of about 8,910 constituents per supervisor.

Strong said that's still far more representation than the more populous counties surrounding Walworth.

"When you look at the representation among us, we're going to be very solid," he said. "We will not be forgotten anymore."

Fewer supervisors would mean more individual work, and thus a demand for more pay, Burwell said.

She feels Citizens for Responsible Government bases its efforts on more populous counties in California where less than 10 supervisors run county business as a full-time job.

Walworth County supervisors make $500 per month and the board chair gets $1,000 per month, plus mileage. The combined salaries of the board members totals $156,000 annually.

Candidates would be willing to work for those salaries even with a greater workload, Strong said. That salary for 11 supervisors will still be respectable for the amount of hours the job requires, he feels.

 

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