This story originally appeared in the January 2nd, 2020 editon of The Smart Reader.
Q: What are some of your duties as County Executive?
A: Many of the duties of a county executive are cited in Wisconsin Statutes, Chapter 59. I see the county executive’s role as one of a cheerleader for our whole county, addressing a holistic approach to economic development and eliminating barriers to private investments. And adding value to our quality of life by improving our parks in general, and also with partnerships like the Biergarten at Petrifying Springs Park and Boundless Adventures at Bristol Woods Park. Widening our county trunk highways with bike lanes and increasing our bike trail footprint. Additionally, we’ve added three county dog parks, two state-recognized, high-quality disc golf courses, and we have two county golf courses that operate in the black.
Then we get into the 30 departments and divisions that range from Human Services to the Sheriff’s Department to Brookside Care Center, while focusing on our infrastructure on 245 miles of county trunk roads (the ones with letter names, like A, E and C).
To sum it up, in county government, we do what you and your neighbors can’t do for themselves.
Q: How does being in a non-partisan position affect your outlook on being County Executive?
A: Being a nonpartisan office is an advantage in that we look for the best ideas on how to improve or deliver services while not wasting time, energy and money fighting on blue or red positions. There are many examples of working together in count government – from the sheriff and me working hand in glove on corrections and safety issues, to working with whomever is the governor to get state funds for Kenosha County purposes.
Q: What goes into the annual County budget for Kenosha?
A: The annual Kenosha County budget is $265 million, with about 30 percent of that coming from the property tax. Most of the balance is federal and state dollars that we have the fiduciary responsibility for using properly.
Q: What made you want to get involved in local government?
A: While in college at UW-Parkside, I was able to intern for Congressman Les Aspin, doing constituent work among other tasks. Local government is where the rubber meets the road, and I enjoy solving people’s concerns, planning for the long haul and giving back to the community where I was born and raised.
Q: Tell us about the first political office you were elected to?
A: The first political office I was elected to was Parkside Student Government President for two terms. It was good practice for when I decided to run for the state Assembly in 1993, when I was elected to the 64th Assembly District that Peter Barca had and now Tip McGuire has.
Q: How do you interact with other local politicians?
A: I get along well with most of the politicians throughout the county at all levels of the different governments. The Mayor and I talk at least once a week. I hold biannual meetings, called the Council of Governments, each year with all elected officials in Kenosha County. I am open and accessible to anyone with ideas that add value to the fabric of our community.
Q: What are some of the challenges of being a County Executive?
A: In this role, you are the CEO of a $265 million-a-year operation that provides a very wide range of services, some of which have seemingly nothing to do with one another. We have limits, imposed by the state, on what we can do, and how much money we have to do it. It’s a constant balance between fiscal responsibility, meeting the needs of the community, and innovating to do all of these things better all the time.
Q: What are some of the things you enjoy about being County Executive?
A: All of the challenges that I just mentioned are also some of my favorite parts of the job. It’s often like working out a puzzle, identifying problems and finding solutions to make the pieces fit together. I enjoy that. I also never stop enjoying the opportunity to serve my hometown, which means so much to me.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the ups and downs you have experienced over your 10+ year role as Kenosha County Executive?
A: I became county executive in 2008, just as the economy was plunging into the worst recession of our lifetimes. And, then Chrysler announced it was permanently leaving our county. It was a difficult time for sure, but we put a good team in place to address the current needs at the time and to begin planning strategically for the future.
There are far more positives that I can think of during my years in this office. Our job growth has been tremendous – the third highest in the state from 2013 to 2018, at 24.4 percent. Our per-capita income has increased year after year as of late. Kenosha County has positioned itself as a prime destination for employers looking to relocate their businesses from the state to our south.
In county government, we’ve worked to protect our assets. When I came into office, you could push the parapet off top of the Courthouse; now that building has been beautifully restored. We’ve made investments to enhance our public safety, including a state-of-the-art 911 dispatch center and updated law enforcement communications systems. And yet our county’s long-term obligations are the lowest they’ve been in 10 years, down $70 million from when I took office.
Q: Can you tell us about your involvement in the BikeKenosha event co hosted by the Kenosha County Parks?
A: I’m proud to support bicycling in Kenosha County, in a few different ways. We know that multiuse trails and safe bike routes are things that contribute significantly to our quality of life. Every year, Kenosha County is proud to join the City of Kenosha in co-sponsoring Bike-to-Work Weeks – a time late in the spring, early in the summer, when we encourage people to get out and explore our community from the seat of a bicycle. I also host two community bike rides every year: The Dairy Air ride to the Kenosha County Dairy Breakfast, and the Fall Wheel Ride to Petrifying Springs Park. It’s great to bring people together for a healthy activity that celebrates our community.
Q: Can you tell us anything about what your vision for Kenosha County is in 2020?
A: The 2020 budget that I submitted to the County Board in October, and was adopted in November, puts an emphasis on law enforcement and infrastructure. It includes a contract settlement with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association that tries to make up for a wage disparity between our Sheriff’s Department and other area law enforcement agencies. It also includes completion of a simulcast project that will strengthen communications capabilities across the county for sheriff’s deputies and county fire and rescue agencies.
In infrastructure, or major priority for 2020 is a much-needed expansion of Highway S between Green Bay Road and the interstate. Work will begin in the coming months. When it’s completed, Highway S will be a four-lane-divided highway from Walmart to Amazon.
Q: Why Kenosha? What made you come home to Kenosha in 2008?
A: I never left. I served in Madison, but I never moved. I love this community. And county government is where my roots are. For seven years, before I joined the state Assembly, I was assistant to County Executive John Collins. And before that, while I was in college, I had two internships in county government. This is where the action is when it comes to serving our citizens, and I was honored to return to it.
Q: Can you tell us about being an intern for U.S. Rep. Les Aspin?
A: Les Aspin was a very, very smart man, and a very skilled politician. But, as I said before, working in federal government taught me that local government is where I belong.
I do have Les to thank for my first break in elected office. In 1993, it was Bill Clinton’s appointment of Les as secretary of defense that led Peter Barca – then the 64th Assembly representative – to run for Congress. Peter won that special election, and then I won the special election for his Assembly seat. It was a good chain of events for me, and the timing was just right.
Q. Can you tell us about your long-standing professional relationship with Jennie Tunkieicz?
A: Jennie and I first crossed paths when I was working in student government, and she was a reporter for the Parkside Ranger. Then I worked for County Executive Collins, and she covered the county for the Kenosha News. And then I was in Madison, and she was covering the region for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. When I was elected county executive and had to choose a chief of staff, I knew that her experience as an observer of local government, and her strong ethical practices, would make her a perfect fit. And I haven’t been disappointed – Jennie and my office manager from Day 1, Karen Steigerwald, are the glue that hold my office together.
Q: Tell us about your time in the Wisconsin State Assembly
A: I greatly enjoyed representing Kenosha in the Assembly for 15 years. Adding to that, for seven of those years I had the privilege of serving in the leadership – as assistant minority leader for one term and minority leader for three terms. It was a tremendous education in how state and local governments intertwine, and I use those skills often to this day.
Q. Give us a rundown of what a typical day in the life of the Kenosha County Executive looks like?
There is always work to do on behalf of the citizens of Kenosha County. The mayor and I talk and meet often, and I work with state officials frequently. I also do a great deal of planning with our department and division leaders. We work together on efficient and effective services for Kenosha County residents. Every day is a great day in Kenosha County!
Get to know your County Executive – RapidFire Q&A!
Q: What is your favorite bike?
The Schwinn 10-speed that I bought from my earnings as a Kenosha News paperboy. I still ride it!
Q: What are some of your favorite places in Kenosha?
Renzo’s Pizzeria & Trattoria, Petrifying Springs Park, Brighton Dale Links Golf Course – Everything is so nice in Kenosha County!
Q: What’s your favorite food?
A cheese and sausage pizza from Stella’s Casa Capri Restaurant, and a Perch Buster at the Boat House Pub & Eatery.
Q: What is your favorite pastime?
Fishing and hiking through our county and state parks.
Q: What is your favorite music to listen to?
Q: What is your favorite sport?
Q: Who is your role model?
Former Kenosha County Executive John Collins and the late Sen. Joe Andrea.
Q: Favorite band?
Locally, it’s the Grateful Deadliners, a classic rock band with Chief of Staff Jennie Tunkieicz and Joe Potente, our county Communications Manager, and I really enjoy Gaelic Storm.
Interview conducted by Donald Stancato and Cassidy Gillespie-Dipinto
Special thanks to Karen Steigerwald, Jennie Tunkieicz, and Joe Potente for their help with this interview.