Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm
As Dan Finley prepared this week to leave his job as Waukesha County executive to become the chief executive officer of the troubled Milwaukee Public Museum, he pulled no punches in an exit interview with Small Business Times. Finley leaves with some unfinished business in Lake Country. No issue is more critical than the county’s water supply, Finley says. He also says the municipalities in the county need to further consolidate to become more efficient for taxpayers. The following are excerpts from SBT executive Steve Jagler’s recent interview with Finley as he looked back on his 14-year tenure as the only county executive Waukesha County has ever known.
SBT: You’re the only executive Waukesha County has ever had. Looking back, what did you enjoy most about this job?
Finley: "Well, Waukesha County is the best county in the entire state, and the business community here is second to none. I think over the last 14 years, we pulled together better than most places, and as a result, we were able to accomplish a great deal."
SBT: That’s my next question. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Finley: "There are a number of things. First off, it was just a transition to a whole new form of government. We were basically government by committee 14 years ago, and we realized that Waukesha County was too big and too urban to be governed that way. We, in essence, adopted a corporate model, with a CEO and a board of directors. And that transition, by and large, went very smoothly. We’ve had 14 solid years of stability in the government and growth in the economy.
"Secondly, a number of major cooperative efforts that we’ve been able to do, and I actually would put Miller Park on that list. Freeway work is under way. We were able to consolidate our emergency 911 dispatch centers, and it’s those kinds of mergers. We very much professionalized this organization. I think when we started out, we had 14 department heads, and now we only have eight. We’ve tried to mirror the business community’s streamlining of its internal affairs, as well.
"And frankly, a final thing, and it’s kind of an odd one to say, but maybe not, is we did avoid trouble, where other governments have had major financial
troubles and even criminal troubles …"
SBT: There’s something to be said for that, these days, isn’t there?
Finley: "We’ve had 14 years of real stability. I’m going to an organization that had several months of financial challenges. So, I’m very proud that Waukesha County has been very stable for all these years."
SBT: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Finley: "Oh, I’m sure there is. That’s a great question and one I probably could give you a better answer to if I thought about it some more. (Pause) I wish we could have done the 911 dispatch (consolidation) sooner. It took us 10 years to do that, and I wish we could have done it faster."
SBT: Do you think there needs to be more municipal government consolidation in Waukesha County?
Finley: "Exactly. Absolutely. In all counties. What we needed to do was to have a win. We needed a success. And once we had a success, we need to build on things. And that’s what our consolidation of our 911 services has been able to do for us."
SBT: Looking ahead, what are the most important challenges facing Waukesha County?
Finley: "Well, keeping our business climate prosperous. And county government does that by keeping the tax rate low and infrastructure quality high. Clearly, water will be the major issue facing this county for the next 10 to 20 years. We need to somehow find a way to control health care costs for business. They’re just screaming out of control."
SBT: You mentioned the supply of drinking water. That’s not a lifestyle issue. That’s a life issue. How critical is the problem?
Finley: "It’s very critical, and unfortunately, not enough people are aware of it yet. And it really comes down to two things, Steve: quantity and quality of our water supply. First of all, we were developing so rapidly, that we have not replenished the water we’ve been using. And secondly, we’ve discovered that much of our water supply is contaminated …"
SBT: With radium?
Finley: "Right. It’s a naturally occurring substance. The more water we use, the deeper we go. The deeper we go, the more radium we pick up. So, it’s a quantity and quality problem, and it’s going to be the big issue facing Waukesha County for the next 10 to 20 years."
SBT: Ultimately, is the solution going to be to somehow bring water from Lake Michigan through Milwaukee County, which would be costly, or is it developing better and more water treatment facilities in Waukesha County, which also would be costly?
Finley: "The answer is there are a number of options, and you just mentioned two of them. There are options of digging more wells. There are options of trying to reclaim more rainwater. There are options to reclaim the Fox River. There are options of conservation. You know, we have little or no water conservation programs in Waukesha County. So, the answer here is it’s going to have to be all of them."
SBT: In the past year or two, there
has been some progress made in
SBT: I think it was a big step when you, as the county executive of Waukesha County, came right out and said that this region needs to be promoted as the "Milwaukee" region out of state. Yet I know the 124th Street New Berlin Wall is still very high. There are still so many Waukesha County businesspeople who tell me that they think Milwaukee’s urban problems are Milwaukee’s urban problems, period. They don’t see the interconnection. They just don’t get it. Does that frustrate you?
Finley: "Well, we need to do even more to educate all of our citizens, businesses and individuals about the interdependencies of our counties. The water issue is just one of the issues. The social problems of Milwaukee, they directly affect Waukesha County in that on any given day, about 30 percent of the people who are in jail in Waukesha County are Milwaukee County residents. That tells me very clearly that it does cost Waukesha County taxpayers money if Milwaukee struggles with its human problems. So, that is a powerful message that I think business needs to understand, that to turn our back on Milwaukee certainly doesn’t make it all go away."
SBT: You mentioned Miller Park before as something you were proud of. To this day, there still are people who grumble about that, especially in the suburban counties. Could you expound for a moment about why you were proud to get that through?
Finley: "Well, in some ways you could fast-forward that debate into what we just talked about – branding. If Milwaukee wants to be considered a Major League city, we have to have Major League sports, and that costs a lot of money. Even (former Milwaukee Mayor) John Norquist used to say, ‘Wisconsin without Milwaukee would be Iowa.’ Well, Milwaukee without the Brewers would be Des Moines. If we want to play in the global marketplace, we have to have international assets, and that is clearly represented by Major League Baseball, a world-class museum, an art museum and those kinds of facilities."
SBT: In Waukesha County, what does the future hold for the airport out there?
Finley: "Well, it will never have commercial service, but it will clearly be an asset to the business community as businesses begin to reinvest in their aircraft. I think the airport will do nothing but grow."
SBT: A couple of political questions here, and you can take them anywhere you want to take them. The Milwaukee Zoo Interchange and the I-94 east-west corridor should have been more of a priority than the north-south corridor to the state line, as the state transportation budget goes. Right?
Finley: "Sure it should. The Zoo Interchange is the busiest interchange in the state of Wisconsin. To neglect it, doesn’t make the problem go away."
SBT: Do you think that was
simply dodged (by Gov. Jim Doyle) as a political issue (with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett)?
Finley: "Well, that I will dodge. I’ll just say out front that it needs to be addressed much sooner than is currently planned."
SBT: Finally, what words of advice would you give to your successor, whoever that may be?
Finley: "The No. 1 priority of the executive is to maintain the people’s trust and faith in you. Then the people will accept your decisions. Listen to the people. The bottom line is to always be honest. And once you lose your credibility as an elected official or any leader, you’re done. That’s always Job One. I don’t care if you’re a county executive, a business executive or just a human being. That has to be top priority."
August 19, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI