Spring 2020 Candidate Questionnaire: Eau Claire County Board
District 3: Joe Knight
Note: These questions were drafted and candidate responses requested before concerns about COVID-19 escalated to their current level.
Q1. What are your background and qualifications for this position, and why are you a candidate?
I'm in the final month of my first term on the county board representing district 3, which includes much of the town of Seymour (the town north of Lake Altoona, up to the Chippewa County border, and a little bit of the city of Eau Claire. I'm mostly retired. I worked for 34 years for the Leader-Telegram where I frequently wrote about conservation/outdoor recreation issues. The last three years by job included covering the county board, so I knew a little bit about what I was getting into when I ran. Other background: M.S. from uw-madison, peace corps in North Africa.
Q2. What is the County Board’s role in promoting economic development, business maintenance and commercial growth in the county?
I see the county's role as maintaining the quality of life, which makes people want to live here. We have, in general, clean ground water, clean air, generally a low cost of living, low crime, low property taxes (too low from the county's perspective). There is a lively arts and music scene in Eau Claire and Altoona, but also natural areas close at hand...We have one of the best cross-country trail systems in the state, we have three county lakes for recreation ( at least they're created by county dams). We have a county forest of over 50,000 acres that provides timber revenues as well as a spot for outdoor recreation. We have reasonable zoning, at least on the western side of the county, where we are trying to preserve the best farmland and keep businesses in areas that have the infrastructure for business. I hope we're not growing too fast in areas without municipal sewers.
Q3. What should the County Board do to address the current budget issues and program demands in the
Human Services area?
The Human Services Department has been way over budget the past couple years, eroding much of what was left of the county's fund balance. They probably weren't realistic about what their costs were going to be, but I also believe they didn't anticipate the extent of the meth epidemic and the number of out-of-home placements. I reluctantly vote in favor of a resolution that would have required a hiring freeze and oversight by other committees of the Human Services Department if they went substantially over budget in the future. (The resolution would have also applied to other large departments, but was clearly targeting Human Services). That resolution was defeated, which I now think was for the better. The Human Services Board has the most knowledge about the needs of the Human Service Department and is in the best position to make those decisions. I understand that Human Services is trying to intervene earlier so that kids don't have to be sent to foster homes or residential care centers, and to have kids stay with other family members, like aunts or grandparents if the parents are in a situation where they can't take care of the kids. That's better for the kids, and better for the county's budget. I also understand there is interest among local legislators for bringing more beds and facilities for psychiatric care to western Wisconsin, which would lower the costs of placement for human services.
Q4. What are the two biggest issues you expect Eau Claire County to face during your term, and how do you think the County Board should address them?
An obvious, but not new concern is the budget. Eau Claire County is in the bottom fourth of counties in the state for property taxes, and we're pretty much locked there for eternity by the Legislature. That may seem like good news to homeowners, but at the same time we're in the top one-fourth of counties for debt. This year the expected debt service is $11.34 million, which, for the first time, was expected to surpass revenue from the county sales tax. I don't think past county boards have been wild spenders, but there are some things counties are supposed to do, like remove kids from meth houses and maintain the highways, and when the county board runs out of money, the only option is to borrow. Diversion is one thing the county can try, and is trying -- if you can get people through treatment courts rather than tossing them in jail, that's better for the individual and for the budget.
2) A big issue for my district is landfill expansion. The siting committee negotiating with the landfill owner, Advance Disposal, is proposing a major hike in tipping fees -- money charged for waste dumped that is returned to the county, town of Seymour and city of Eau Claire. That's good, although it may mean a hike in our household disposal rates. But if garbage is coming here all the way from Minnesota and Iowa, that's a clue that our current tipping fees are a bargain. The site committee has also proposed property value guarantees for people living near the landfill -- if a neighbor puts his home up for sale and it is not sold within half a year, the landfill company would buy it at market prices. Another measure the siting committee did not include, but which area residents have been lobbying for, is an annual "quality of life" payment to neighbors for having to put up with the smells, litter, dust, gulls and such that go along with living near a landfill. The siting committee and Advanced Disposal will meet 11 a.m. march 20 at the Seymour Town Hall. Advanced is apparently considering a one-time quality of life payment for people living within a half mile of the landfill.
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