The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

May 21, 2008

How government should work

Those who are regular readers of this space have read in the last week how I feel about our elected officials in Madison and the circular firing squad that was last week’s budget “fix.”

So I thought it might be refreshing to discuss a municipality where government actually works well. The mayor of Ripon, Aaron Kramer, was on Ripon’s radio station Monday talking about how city government was going to address the city’s … surplus, of nearly $200,000.

(Full disclosure: Yes, I live in Ripon, and I served with Kramer on Ripon’s Plan Commission for four years. I am also an on-air voice for Ripon’s Channel 19, the government access channel funded through cable TV franchise fees. My wife works for the Ripon Public Library, which gets you no tax breaks. I am not writing this to curry any favors with city leaders.)

This surplus was not generated from excessive taxation, incidentally. The city’s 2007 mil rate of $7.10 per $1,000 valuation ranked 94th of the 196 Wisconsin cities, and a bit more than the $6.93 per $1,000 city average, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. (The city’s overall mil rate of $21.77 per $1,000 was 59th highest among Wisconsin cities; the reason for that can be found 11 paragraphs from now.) The city has received more revenue than forecast, a result of economic growth, and has spent less than budgeted, thanks to what Kramer calls “a frugal group of department heads, who were not operating under the all-too-familiar model of spending every available dollar at the end of a budget cycle in order to receive additional money the next time around.” The city’s forecasted 2007 deficit of $140,000 (which was to be covered by carryover funds earmarked for specific projects) turned into a surplus of $70,000, thanks to project bids lower than estimated, not spending contingency funds, selling the city’s Senior Center and making money on the city’s invested funds.

The city’s business park, expanded two years ago following a decade-long debate on how to expand and where, is going to fill rapidly. Two residential subdivisions — the second and third subdivisions to be created in the city in the past 40 years — are being built. A Tax Incremental Financing district on the city’s west side has generated almost $8 million in new development and $177,000 a year in new property taxes. On Tuesday, Ripon Medical Center announced it is moving its hospital (across the street from a certain business magazine editor) to the city’s business park.

And it’s not as if no infrastructure improvements are occurring. The city has borrowed 20 percent of its allowable general obligation debt limit to pay for its share of a new fire station and street and sewer improvements. The city’s outstanding debt has been dropping thanks to a policy of paying off more debt than is taken on in any particular year.

Ripon has four specific advantages, including the particular quality of life that comes from being in a college town (although city–college relations haven’t always been entirely positive). The city has a large industrial sector highlighted by one major manufacturer, Alliance Laundry Systems (they build Speed Queen washers and dryers); a major plastics packaging company; food processors Ripon Pickle, Smuckers and Bremner Foods (the Rippin’ Good Cookies people); and two large service companies, a printer and a company that makes prison security automation equipment. The city’s location on a railroad spur obviously is quite convenient for manufacturers. And unlike many cities around its size, Ripon has a downtown worth visiting, thanks in part to its being part of the state Main Street program. (This is despite the fact that there is no street called Main Street in Ripon.)

Unlike other cities in the area, however, Ripon has little developable waterfront area, and the city isn’t on a four-lane highway. (For that matter, getting through the city can be a challenge due to the fact that it has no through streets.) Thanks to decisions, or lack thereof, of past city leaders, the city hasn’t grown in population for decades, and economic growth was minimal until relatively recently.

Ripon’s recent successes show that there is no substitute for actual leadership. Kramer would be the first to tell you that Ripon’s growth has been a team effort, including city government management and staff, a new economic development director, and others. Interestingly, though, other than the economic development director, most of the people on staff were there during previous administrations, where very little growth occurred. The approach that has worked in Ripon is that the part-time mayor leads in determining general future direction, while the full-time city administrator, Steve Barg, applies and executes that vision. The relationship between elected officials and professional staff in Ripon seems appropriate — city staff doesn’t appear to run the show, as in some municipalities, but city staff is also not micromanaged by elected officials whose reach exceeds their grasp.

One thing that changed besides the mayor was that aldermen and members of appointed bodies with a we-don’t-care-about-growth attitude have been replaced by those who do, or maneuvered into appointed bodies where they can do less damage. (Evidently Kramer has read Machiavelli.) Ripon supposedly has a weak-mayor form of government, but you’d never know that from what’s happened in Ripon over the past five years. The city also has been able to withstand employment losses from more than one major employer over the past few years.

Ripon also is an example of the positive things that can happen in government without party labels
(that’s an observation I’ve heard from mayors all over Northeast Wisconsin’s political spectrum) and without careerist politicians. Down in Madison, in contrast, spats have occurred between parts of the same party for more than a century. (Wisconsin was dominated by the Republican Party in the early 20th century, but the GOP was divided among more conservative Stalwarts and the considerably more liberal Progressives started by Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette.) Before Tommy Thompson took the word “veto” to new heights as governor, the previous gubernatorial leader in vetoes was Gov. Anthony Earl, a Democrat who had a Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature all four years he was governor. Earl and legislative Democrats were rarely on the same page on budgeting issues.

Kramer has an actual full-time job, and Ripon’s aldermen either have full-time jobs or are retired. In contrast, the words “full-time legislator” appear far too often in the Wisconsin Blue Book section of legislators’ biographies, both Democrat and Republican. Neither the Founding Fathers nor those who founded Wisconsin intended the phrase “full-time legislator” to be part of the political lexicon.

Ripon is not perfect. The city could be in better shape today had previous leaders not made decisions based on the attitude that they liked the city just the way it was. There is no such thing as “just the way it was,” or is, because communities are organic — they grow in real terms, or they shrink. What’s happening today is reversing, finally, shrinkage in real terms (as demonstrated by zero population growth when nearly every community in Northeast Wisconsin has grown in population) over the years.

There is a belief, not without some justification, that Fond du Lac County leaders occasionally forget that Ripon is in Fond du Lac County. (Ripon has a new county park on the city’s east side that consists of a field and a parking area. Still, I shouldn’t complain given that Fond du Lac County manages to operate county functions with average county mil rates but without a county sales tax.) The school district is good but, contrary to their vision statement, not “one of Wisconsin’s outstanding school districts,” although
school district taxes are outstandingly high. (Relations between the school district and its teachers are similar to relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union around 1962.) I’d like to see Ripon grow by about 1,400 population and expand to about 36 square miles of land area. (That is a comment about a municipality near Ripon previously referred to in this space.)

The City of Ripon is an example of the truism that government works best when responsibilities are handled at the lowest practical level.
Ripon also is a cautionary tale that the quality, or lack thereof, of elected officials and administration makes a real difference in whether a community grows, or does not. Nothing city leaders have done appears to qualify as rocket science, but Ripon is certainly better off than many cities in Wisconsin, thanks to progressive leadership.

There are a lot of self-styled progressives in Madison, but nothing that goes on in the state Capitol qualifies as “progressive” in a positive way, unless your definition of “progressive” includes vast structural deficits and accounting tricks played to mask the financial hole into which the state has fallen. There are political leaders (as opposed to “politicians”) out there whose goal is to better the communities they serve, instead of sticking it to their opposition. Few of them, apparently, can be found in Madison.

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