Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat mulling a run for governor in 2014, contends that his private-sector experience would put the state on a better course.
Making the media rounds this summer, the former bank trust officer has gently criticized Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans for what he views as overly exuberant tax cuts and borrowing.
Harris, as you might expect, thinks his own record on fiscal issues is more responsible.
"I’ve got the spending down, I’ve got the debt down a little bit, I’ve got the reserves up," Harris told journalist Mike Gousha on WISN-TV’s "Upfront" show July 21, 2013.
Harris was first elected county executive in 2005 and previously served as mayor of Oshkosh and on the Oshkosh City Council and Winnebago County Board. He has worked as a certified public accountant in Michigan and Indiana, was a lawyer in Indiana, and worked as a trust officer and vice president at Associated Trust Company in Oshkosh from 1995 until 2005.
With Harris pledging to decide on running by Labor Day, we thought it was the right time to check the books on his claims.
Here’s what we found:
Average year-end reserves are up considerably in the Harris era, compared with the final four budget years of his predecessor, county financial records show.
Under Harris, the county often has kept reserves in excess of its goal of having a cushion totalling one month of the county’s annual spending. The average annual reserve is up more than 50% on average, and in 2012 reserves swelled to nearly two months of spending, prompting the county to suspend new borrowing in 2013.
The increase in unrestricted reserves has not been a steady march, but the trend is clear.
Harris pointed us to numbers showing that the 2013 adopted county budget set operating spending at 1 percent less than the 2005 budget -- the last one adopted before his election.
We confirmed those figures, and found a four-year trend of declining or flat expenditures from 2010-’13, so Harris has some backup. The county’s finance director, Charles Orenstein, told us savings came in part from reining in fringe benefit costs, consolidation and efficiency moves in county facilities, and savings on court and jail costs through technology.
But, looking more broadly, the spending trend lines look like a roller-coaster ride.
Spending went up in Harris’ first four years. In fact, only in 2013 could Harris make the claim that spending is lower compared with when he came in.
In every other year but this one under Harris, the county’s annual spending total was higher than in the last pre-Harris budget.
Harris acknowledges that Walker’s curbs on collective bargaining saved the county money, but he contends that state aid cuts offset most if not all of the savings, at least in 2012.
The county’s property tax levy has increased 24 percent in eight years under Harris as aid from other levels of government -- a category including the state -- fell off markedly, county budget records show. The property tax levy has fallen the last two years amid tight property tax caps imposed by Walker.
Harris said he got the county’s debt down "a little."
Yes and no.
Harris notes that Winnebago County’s outstanding general-obligation debt totalled $59.6 million at year-end 2012, down from $63 million in December 2004, months before he took office in April 2005. In noting that, he uses 2005 as his first year and 2004 as the baseline year.
His numbers are correct, and defensible to a point.
But, under the county’s capital improvement process, many debt-funded capital projects would have received approval before Harris took office. So both the previous county executive and Harris can claim an influence on the outstanding debt level in 2005.
Keeping that in mind, if you instead use 2005 as the baseline year, Harris’ debt claim fails. Debt added up to $57 million in 2005, slightly lower than the mark under Harris in 2012.
Harris’ claim, though, is on target by two other measures, average annual debt per capita, and average annual debt in raw dollars.
In general, this is a difficult area to judge because huge projects -- a new nursing home built on Harris’ watch, for instance -- spike borrowing in certain years.
The Credit Game
One final issue.
Harris credited himself for driving the fiscal trends.
But he acknowledged that the County Board deserves some credit as well.
And two veteran Winnebago County Board leaders, David Albrecht and Patrick Brennand, told us that former County Executive Jane Van De Hey and others also helped instill a cautious approach to spending.
There’s also the effect of the state budget, which helped the county drive down costs while also cutting aid to the county.
Harris said, "I’ve got the spending down, I’ve got the debt down a little bit, I’ve got the reserves up." He was referring to his tenure as Winnebago County executive from April 2005 to the present.
He makes the best case on reserves, which clearly have risen. Spending is down when viewed narrowly. The debt burden has dropped by some measures but not by all.
Harris deserves some credit for the trends, but not all.
We rate his claim Mostly True.