Highway Committee recommends paid leave for Highway Commissioner, pending investigation

By Keri Solis
The Marquette County Highway Committee held a special meeting on Monday to discuss the 2012 budget deficit. The Highway Department had a budget of $2,511,541 in 2012. After this was exhausted, they had to use their reserve fund, which is built up through leftover money from the Highway budget at the end of each year. This money is typically used to cover work done due to unforeseen events such as floods, tornados, or overly harsh winters. Once all of the Highway Department reserve fund of $593,792 was used, they then asked to have $370,638 transferred from the general fund of the county to cover the shortfall.

County citizen Gordon Bentley spoke to those in attendance, stating, "I'm very disturbed by this mistake." Judi Nigbor of the Town of Packwaukee also spoke, "This is a taxpayer expense. We can't continue to take care of mistakes. We're paying for it and we're sick of it."

As discussed the week before at the Executive Finanace Committee meeting, the Highway Commissioner, Brenden Rhinehart, and Highway Committee chair Jerry Herbert pointed out that the lack of help in the Highway office to keep up with the paperwork was part of the reason that the department went over budget. It was also stated that work was done in 2012 to pave and shoulder County Road K because Rhinehart had believed that state funding for the project would run out by December 31st.  Doing this put them ahead of their paving schedule.

Besides being over budget in the spending of dollars, there is also a question of missing gravel, salt, and sand/salt. Rhinehart attributed that to the lack of a scale to measure the exact amount going out on each truck.

County Supervisor Jon Sheller asked Rhinehart how the gap in materials could be attributed to overloading trucks, if the trucks were loaded in 2012 the same way they were loaded in prior years. Rhinehart was unsure of what would have changed to make it different this year, stating, "I have no idea."

It was suggested by Rhinehart and Herbert that the Highway Department could pay the county back the money borrowed from the general fund by doing fewer projects this year, since they were ahead of schedule on paving. There was also the thought of doing more work for the townships, which in turn pay for work done by the county, but it was questioned if the townships had extra money for projects in their budgets for 2013.

After moving into closed session, the committee recommended paid administrative leave for Rhinehart pending investigation by sheriff's department or their designee. Motions were also made and approved to pay the county general fund back over three years and to make Randy Ravenscroft interim Highway Commissioner.

The matter was then brought up again at the regular meeting of the Marquette County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night, where Judi Nigbor again expressed her displeasure about the matter: "You call it a mistake, I call it gross mismanagement," she said. Other citizens were present to express their thoughts, including Bob Leske, who stated, "It doesn't pass the smell test. I want to know where the money went, why it was spent and what are we going to do to fix it?"

After public comments, the board then proceeded into their regular agenda. Several resolutions were on the agenda, including one pertaining to a state trust loan for $240,000 to fund the reconstruction of the Buffalo Lake dredge bank loan. The project itself had been approved previously, but not the manner in which it would be funded. The resolution on the table would fund it with a loan at 2.5% instead of taking the money from the general fund.
Multiple supervisors stated their disappointment that a check had been cut prior to the board approving the manner for which the project would be paid for.

The resolution, which required a 3/4 vote, failed on an 11-6 tally, with Banicki, Buchholz, Goldsmith, Groskreutz, Johnston and Walters voting no.

There was also a resolution to transfer $370,638 from the General Fund to the Highway Fund to cover the 2012 budget shortfall.  Again, concerns were brought up about cross checks not being in place, and if this is approved, what is to keep it from happening again. The resolution, which required a 2/3 vote, failed on a 9-8 tally, with Banicki, Buchholz, Groskreutz, Johnston, Miller, Sheller, Steuck, and Walters voting no.

The resolution to approve a biogas pipeline was tabled, as the board did not feel comfortable moving forward with a vote. Some board members were concerned that the company backing the project may not have sent out letters to the landowners, as they haven't found anyone who has stated that they received one. 

There were also concerns that if the pipeline is sold, we would lose control of what type of material is transferred through the line. In regards to the construction process, it was questioned how the pipeline would be stabilized through wetlands. It was suggested that Clean Energy North America hold a public hearing to be sure the public was completely informed and that all questions were answered before moving forward.

After the board reviewed all of the resolutions, they moved into closed session regarding the management of the highway department. When open session was resumed, the first order of business was a revote on the approval to take out a state trust loan for the dredge bank project. There was concern that if the general fund was depleted too much, it would affect our bond rating and cost the county more money on other projects, but the resolution passed unanimously.

The second order of business was a revote on transferring money from the General fund to the Highway Department to cover the shortfall. Some feared if this were not passed, the Highway Department would not be able to operate. The roll was called and the resolution passed unanimously.

The board then voted on the decision of the Highway Committee to place Highway Commissioner Brenden Rhinehart on paid administrative leave during the investigation of the budget issues, for the Highway Department to pay back the money borrowed from the general fund, and to make Randy Ravenscroft interim Highway Commissioner. All motions were approved.

The investigation will most likely be a two-pronged approach between the Department of Justice regarding any possible criminal offenses, and legal counsel and investigators from the county's insurance company in regards to any administrative investigation.