Capital improvement plan allows for debate, adjustments

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Dave Bretl | February 17, 2014

I'm not sure if it is a function of my age or the fact that I've written a lot over the years, but my old columns seemed to fall into one of three categories: those that I have written and can find, those that I have written and have difficulty locating and those that I have, apparently, only imagined that I've written. A fine line separates categories two and three. A painstaking but fruitless search for an old column reduces, but never completely eliminates, the possibility of its existence.

To get some background for this week's column on the county's capital improvement planning process, I wanted to review a piece that I wrote on the topic a few years ago. When an exhaustive search of my hard drive came up dry, however, I had to conclude that the capital improvement piece must be added to my ever-expanding category three list — columns that I only imagine having written.

Before I get too much further, I need to make it clear that I don't recycle old columns; the gist of the imaginary column was the history of our capital improvement planning process. By “repurposing” a few paragraphs from that old column, I thought I could provide some context for this piece about how our current practice works. One of the problems with missing columns is that they are impossible to re-create. Not only is it frustrating to till the same ground twice, but the finished product never quite measures up to the original, if it had, in fact, ever really been written. I won't do justice to that first masterpiece, but I will get to the history part in a bit

In order to effectively plan for the future, many local governments adopt a capital improvement plan. A CIP is a forward-looking schedule of proposed capital projects. A capital project is one that involves a significant expense and has a multi-year life span. Buildings, roads and bridges are classic examples of capital projects, but other investments, such as major computer systems or highway equipment, also fit the definition. Most CIPs that I have seen cover a five-year period. The theory behind five years is that a shorter time frame runs contrary to the idea of long-term planning. Too long of a time horizon, however, limits the usefulness of the document; too many variables can change, for example, over a 10-year period.  

Walworth County has a five-year CIP. The 2014 budget, which we adopted last November, contained a CIP that covered the years 2014 through 2018. Projects in the current plan year are funded and can be implemented; those listed in “out years,” while part of the plan, require further board approval before they can be pursued. Among the projects contained in our CIP are $2.2 million to reconstruct portions of County Highway H in 2014; $50,000 to do some re-roofing at the Walworth County Judicial Center in 2015; and $181,000 to replace a tri-axle truck in 2018. Because it is a 2014 project, the County H work was approved when the budget was adopted and can begin this year. The roofing work and truck represent our best projection as to what we will need in the future. Those projects will require funding by the county board during the budget approval process in the appropriate years. Assuming we still need the truck and the roof, the 2015 budget will include a $50,000 appropriation for roofing, and the CIP will reflect the fact that we are one year closer to buying that truck. The cost of each item will likely have gone up in the meantime, and our CIP numbers will be adjusted accordingly. During the budget vote, a majority of the board may remove an item from any year of the CIP.

The plan's out years had been a source of controversy among some supervisors during the early years of our CIP, more than a decade ago. Wary that a vote in favor of the budget would be construed as approval of all of the planned capital items, in all of the out years, some supervisors were reluctant to vote for the budget if they disagreed with a single item in the CIP. Over time, most supervisors have come to see the advantages of the five-year plan and reserve the right to disagree with any specific project when it comes time to appropriate actual dollars for the expense. A supervisor who is dead-set against a major project, such as a new building listed in an out year, may still vote against the entire budget. Others may vote for the budget but raise questions about the proposed capital expense that can be addressed before the plan is brought back the next year. The advantage of the CIP is that it permits debate to begin years in advance of a planned project.

I will finish up on this topic in my next column, but before I exit Word, I'm going to save my work in about six different places on my hard drive. I would hate to lose this column during the ensuing week, or worse, forget that I even wrote it.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit

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