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Plan to build highway storage rankles some

The Pierce County Board voted last week to lend the highway department $400,000 to build a new storage building -- but the loan won't be interest-free.

Along with interest, Supervisor Ben Plunkett, River Falls, also proposed charging the department a $37,500 penalty, claiming highway department representatives lied about funding for an older building.

Highway Commissioner Ross Christopherson had estimated the new 20,000 square foot building -- which replaces smaller off-site buildings--would cost about $800,000. He proposed building this fall, using $100,000 from the department's Machinery and Equipment Fund, $300,000 the county board agreed to pay earlier this year for the "Blue Building" and borrowing $400,000 from the county's General Fund.

Christopherson didn't attend Tuesday's meeting.

"I just can't see building such an expensive building with taxpayer money," complained Plunkett. He said the trucks, graders and mowers to be stored in the new building don't need a heated environment. Many local private companies don't store their construction equipment inside, said Plunkett.

The money would be better spent buying new squad cars and a patrol boat for the sheriff's department or for needs in the human services department, he said.

Plunkett also claimed highway representatives lied to the county board by saying the Blue Building was built with highway department money. Plunkett said $10,000 of that original money came from the county's General Fund and he suggested deducting $37,500 from the $300,000 transfer as a penalty for the deception.

"I am very upset that we were misled ... I am livid," said Plunkett.

"We have been deceived from the very beginning on this building," he said, concluding, "We have other needs that are greater at this time than a new building."

The highway department earns some of its revenue by doing road work for the state and towns, and has been getting about $3 million a year from property taxes collected by the county.

Board Chairman Paul Barkla, River Falls, said over the years highway income has been held in general county accounts and has earned interest for the county.

A few years ago, $170,000 of highway department money was turned over to the General Fund, said Supervisor Don Nellessen, Town of Gilman.

"If you're going to nitpick about where the money comes from or goes to, it kind of goes both ways," he said.

Supervisor Mel Pittman, Plum City, said it's his understanding the department won't be asking for an increase in tax funding for next year or subsequent years.

While a majority of supervisors voted against Plunkett's plan to charge the $37,500 penalty, they voted 8-6 to charge interest on the loan.

The final resolution to loan the department $400,000 -- and charge interest at a rate equal to what the county is earning on its investments through Institutional Capital Management plus one percent -- was adopted on an 11-3 vote.

Later in the week, there was still confusion over what the interest rate will be.

Before the vote, Supervisor Rich Purdy, River Falls, said the county is earning 4.64 percent on its investments. But Corporation Counsel Brad Lawrence said that figure was taken from an earlier report, and because the resolution itself didn't specify a rate, interest should be based on the rate being earned on the date of the meeting. That rate, he said, was 5.029 percent.

Voting yes on the resolution to loan the money were Jerry Kosin, Pittman, Chip Simones, Mike Larson, Ron Lockwood, Nellessen, Kirstin Schilling, Don Rohl, Dan Reis, Bill Gilles and Barkla. Voting no were Purdy, Plunkett and Pamela Sans.