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County is careful, thankful to accept gifts

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Dave Bretl | January 6, 2014

The season of giving provided the inspiration for this week's column on gifts. The county's Christmas stocking is not exactly overflowing, but more often than you may imagine, some generous person will make a gift of money or property to the county. Accepting a gift would seem like an easy thing to do and most times it is. Occasionally, however, a gift can raise policy issues. As a result the county has developed rules, over the years, for handling gifts it receives.

One never likes to look a gift horse in the mouth, but on occasion, that horse can be of the Trojan variety. In a few cases, the motive of the donor may be suspect. My donation of five acres of parkland to the county, at the same time my controversial zoning application is being considered by its zoning agency, may create the appearance, at least, of a conflict of interest. On the other hand, a donation may be made with the purest motives, but might not be in the county's best interest to accept. A squad car, donated for the laudable purpose of increasing speeding enforcement, for example, can drive operating costs for years to come. In such a case, county officials want to carefully evaluate the acquisition to ensure that it fits into its long-term budget plans

It may go without saying, but a point that must be emphasized is that the rules I am describing pertain to gifts to county government, not to county officials. Gifts to officials and employees are strictly prohibited by state law and our own ordinances. It is illegal for a local public official to accept anything of value because of his or her position.

Saying “no” or even questioning a gift made to a county program can be a sensitive topic. A good set of rules can remove some of the emotion from the process and even prevent misunderstandings from occurring in the first place. Key points of these rules include the following:

• Transparency. County rules promote transparency in a variety of ways. For starters, all funds are run through the county's accounting system. Donations can, and often are, restricted by the donor for a particular program. Not surprisingly our special needs school is more likely to receive a donation than our public works department. While we respect the intent of the donors and spend the money only for the purpose for which it was donated, we do not deposit the funds into individual departmental checking accounts. Under the theory that donated funds are not tax dollars, a surprising number of local governments suspend their normal accounting practices when it comes to gifted money. As a result, every so often, I will read a story about how one of these “off-books” accounts has been misappropriated. Money entrusted to government needs to be accounted for, whether in the form of tax dollars or gifts. To ensure that a donation is not intended to improperly influence the board, rules prohibit the county from accepting a gift when the donor has a pending zoning or licensing matter over which the county exercises jurisdiction.   

• Board control.  Another feature of the county's rules on gifts is that the board maintains control over the process. Gifts of cash under $5,000 may generally be accepted by a department head. Larger gifts, donations of property or gifts contingent upon the county taking some action require acceptance by the board. There are several reasons for these rules. As previously described, donations of land and vehicles can incur long-term costs. In the case of large cash donations, rules promote awareness by the board of where the money is coming from and an opportunity to publically thank the donor.

• Restrictions. Naming rights was a hot topic in local government a few years ago. A number of local officials predicted that a gold mine existed right under their noses in the form of government buildings, the naming rights to which could be sold for millions of dollars. Reality seems to have set in, and I don't read much about the topic anymore. While there is no shortage of corporate sponsors when it comes to college football bowl games, Coca-Cola and Pepsi never entered into a bidding war to buy the naming rights to our government center building. Although it doesn't happen every day, occasionally a donor will step forward to take on a large building project. A typical condition of such a large gift is that the donor will want some say in naming the resulting facility. There is nothing wrong with such a restriction. To avoid any future misunderstandings, however, county rules require an agreement with the donor spelling out the duration of the naming rights and whether portions of the facility, such as wings of a building or areas of a park, may be named after other donors.

People work hard just to pay their taxes, so it is humbling, from my perspective, when they go the extra mile and make a donation to the county. In January, the board will recognize several donors who have made contributions to our parks. Earlier this year we had budgeted $2,500 to make some repairs to our well at Price Park. Biersack Well Service was hired to do the job. Rather than submitting a bill, however, Robert Biersack requested that his time and equipment costs be considered a gift to the park. For years, PATS Services has been providing portable toilets on the White River Trail. All of these donations help stretch tax dollars a little further. These gifts, and those made by many other generous donors throughout the year, improve the quality of life in Walworth County and deserve our thanks.
 
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.



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