Paul Farrow was recently elected to serve as the county executive of Waukesha County, succeeding Dan Vrakas, who decided not to seek re-election.
Farrow was first elected to serve in the state Assembly in 2010 as a Republican. He was elected to the state Senate in a December 2012 special election and re-elected in 2014. He also served as assistant senate majority leader.
He is the son of former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow and John Farrow.
Shortly after taking office in his new position, Farrow was interviewed by BizTimes executive editor Steve Jagler. The following are excerpts from that interview.
BIZTIMES: Congratulations on your election as Waukesha’s new county executive. As such, what will be your key priorities in your first term?
FARROW: “My number one priority is economic development. I want Waukesha County to be the epicenter of economic activity in southeastern Wisconsin. The future of our county will be determined by what we do right now. We must work hard to retain the great companies that are here already and simultaneously seek out the new businesses that will lead us well into the future. We also need to focus on maintaining the high quality of life we have here. That means keeping our citizens safe and supporting our new sheriff and district attorney. Together, they are leading the fight against our growing problem of heroin and opiate abuse. The county must work with them and keep fighting that battle on all fronts.”
BIZTIMES: How will you be different from your predecessor?
FARROW: “Dan Vrakas was a great leader in Waukesha County for nearly a decade. He was very good at meeting with people on all sides of an issue before he made decisions. That model worked, and he gets a lot of credit for positioning the county where it is today. I want to continue that approach, but at the same time ramp up the pace of economic change in Waukesha County. I want to be a more aggressive, active participant in economic development discussions and really push Waukesha County to the head of the class in our region.”
BIZTIMES: From an economic development standpoint, what are the three most significant challenges facing Waukesha County? And what can you do to tackle them?
FARROW: “Two of the three most significant economic issues are demographic. First, we have a slightly older population than some of our surrounding counties. We’ll have to work extra hard to keep our young, talented kids here, and we need to attract younger workers to our area. Second, over the next 10 years Waukesha County is projected to have more job openings than we’ll have residents to fill them. That means we need to encourage people to move here and have the workforce housing available that young college graduates and others can afford. We will also need to address key transit and transportation issues that can move folks around from Milwaukee and surrounding communities and get them to jobs here in Waukesha County.
“The third most significant issue is education. We need to convince the next generation of students that a four-year degree is not their only path to a successful, fulfilling career. Many of the jobs that will be created here in Waukesha County won’t require a college degree; they’ll require hands-on skills and solid reading and math abilities. That type of education and training can be received right here at Waukesha County Technical College. WCTC has built strong relationships with county employers and helps students move directly from the classroom into their careers.”
BIZTIMES: From an economic development standpoint, what are the three greatest advantages for Waukesha County?
FARROW: “Our number one economic advantage is our low taxes. Waukesha County’s tax rate is half that of Milwaukee County and lower than Washington, Racine, Kenosha, Dodge or Walworth counties. A $2.5 million business property pays about $5,500 in property taxes here, but that same business in Milwaukee County pays roughly $12,800. Our other tax advantage is our refusal to implement a county sales tax. That saves our homeowners and businesses about $35 million a year. Milwaukee County, on the other hand, is pulling about $65 million out of the local economy because of its sales tax.
“Our second major advantage is our strong core of existing businesses. Waukesha County is home to large businesses like Kohl’s Corp., ProHealth Care, GE Healthcare, Quad/Graphics and others, as well as so many small and medium-sized companies that truly drive our economy. It is this existing core of businesses that we must retain and build upon if we are going to be as successful as I know we can be.
“Number three is our great location. Our county is perfectly located in the heart of southeastern Wisconsin. We are just west of Milwaukee County, a short commute from downtown Milwaukee and easily connected to Racine, Kenosha, Washington and Ozaukee counties by our very well-maintained infrastructure of county highways and county-maintained state roads and interstates.”
BIZTIMES: What was the most important political lesson you learned from your mother?
FARROW: “There are a lot of lessons my brothers and I learned from both of my parents. To me, there are two specific keys they wanted me to remember. First, listen. When working on legislation or looking into issues, always remember there are multiple sides to the issue. In order to understand and do the right thing, you need to hear from all interested parties. This has helped me create legislation that has consistently had strong bipartisan support. Secondly, there are times when the right decision is to stop poor legislation or initiatives. When my mom started in the Legislature, there were three books of statutes. Today, we have six. In a little over 25 years we have doubled the pages of statutes governing our state. I have always tried to balance how the action will affect the outcome and if that affect will help or hinder the outcome.”
BIZTIMES: Is the county playing any role in the effort for the City of Waukesha to address its drinking water crisis? Should it?
FARROW: “The county participated in the preparation of a comprehensive water supply plan for southeastern Wisconsin. The plan creates a science-based strategy for providing a sustainable drinking water supply for all of Waukesha County and the rest of southeastern Wisconsin. A key part of that strategy is providing Lake Michigan water to the City of Waukesha and recycling it back to the lake. It is important for Waukesha County to support the City of Waukesha’s efforts to address drinking water issues. Providing the City of Waukesha with Lake Michigan water will ensure adequate groundwater supply for other areas of Waukesha County for generations to come. I believe strong economic development can be achieved in an environmentally responsible way.”
Education: AAS-marketing from Waukesha County Technical College; bachelor of science in business administration from Carroll University.
Private sector experience: Small business owner since 2001.
Civic involvements/activities/affiliations: Member of the Carroll University President’s Council; member of Divine Redeemer Lutheran Church; Habitat for Humanity volunteer.
Favorite musical artist/band: Brad Paisley, Casting Crowns.
Favorite author: John Maxwell.
Hobbies: Fishing, hunting, golfing.
Family: Wife, Amy, and two children.