Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm
Waukesha County residents overwhelming elected state Rep. Dan Vrakas (R-Delafield) as their next county executive on Oct. 18. Vrakas defeated County Board Chairman James Dwyer to fill the vacancy created when former County Executive Dan Finley became chief executive officer at the Milwaukee Public Museum. As the new county executive, Vrakas will have some big shoes to fill and some unfinished business to attend to. Topping that list are water problems, transportation issues, higher education and health care costs. On the morning after his victory, Vrakas discussed his new job with SBT reporter Eric Decker. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: How will you help grow the businesses of Waukesha County?
Vrakas: "We in Waukesha County are an economic powerhouse for the whole state of Wisconsin. This is where the rubber meets the road. And I believe that some of the key issues that need to be addressed are labor-related and health insurance-related. We’ve got a net deficit of jobs in Waukesha County. My understanding is we could fill 7,500 jobs, but we’re unable to fill them, and it’s because of a couple of things. We need to make sure people’s skills are compatible with the jobs that are open.
"The other shortage we’ve got is health care, and that’s a huge issue. I think another key issue is the overall transportation system, moving goods and services to the marketplace. I have been and will continue to be a strong and powerful spokesperson and advocate for an eight-lane freeway structure right from the Marquette interchange out to Highway 67 in Oconomowoc, and north and south through the Zoo interchange. This needs to be an eight-lane structure because we’re going to have a lot of commerce continuing, and it’s going to grow going through that freeway system."
"The freeway system in the Milwaukee metropolitan area represents 11 percent of the freeway miles in the state of Wisconsin, but on any given day it carries 33 percent of the freeway traffic."
SBT: How are you going to work on the county’s drinking water problems?
Vrakas: "I will not and cannot allow myself to be swayed by emotional arguments when it comes to something as scientifically driven as water supply. Water is a key element to life, and we need to understand what is truly going on. I believe that parts of Waukesha clearly do not lie within the surface water basin of Lake Michigan, but I believe that parts of Waukesha County clearly do lie within the ground water basin of Lake Michigan.
"I think we need to separate fact from fiction and look at the fact that until recent history, Milwaukee did not use lake water for drinking either. And now Waukesha is having a problem. Waukesha did not arrive at this shortage of water alone. Milwaukee drew the deep, wonderful sandstone aquifer down in the early stages of its use. That sandstone aquifer water was the same water that’s responsible for making Milwaukee the beer capital of the world and Waukesha the Bethesda of the West.
"A lot of the development that’s occurring out here is being done with water conservation in mind. We are seeing development all over the county that are no net users of groundwater. Those are things that people don’t see. They don’t see that our population has grown 10 percent but our water usage has only grown 4 percent.
"There’s a lot of good things happening. And I’m looking forward to working with Milwaukee County to help us with our water situation."
SBT: How will you help Waukesha County manufacturers stay in the county, and how will you encourage new manufacturers to locate there? And how can companies gain access to a bigger labor pool?
Vrakas: "The demands of the world economy change, so we need to make sure that we have the right skills that match up to manufacturing that is important to the area. One of the things I am excited about is working with WCTC (Waukesha County Technical College) to make sure that we offer the necessary classes for people to improve their manufacturing skills. I think that ought to happen not only on WCTC’s campus, but also on the job site. You’re starting to see more tutors go to the job site. That’s extremely efficient."
SBT: Are some of the proposals to merge the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee viable? What’s in the county’s best interests?
Vrakas: "It’s something that needs to and ought to happen. It’s been 30 years since we’ve taken a serious look at our higher education in the state. And that was when we merged the University of Wisconsin with the state college system and created the UW system. It was a great reinvention, but now we need to look at it again. We are one of the only states with a two-year college system with a mission. And that mission is allowing the University of Wisconsin to grant two year associates degrees in liberal arts. I want to see that mission continue, but I believe that mission can and ought to be handled with a contract with WCTC (the Waukesha County Technical College). I believe WCTC can perform that mission.
"And that allows UWW to, in combination with UWM, provide residents in Waukesha County with more opportunities for four-year degrees. We need to do that, because in Wisconsin, only 23 percent of our residents have four-year degrees. And that’s low. That number ought to be more like in the mid 30’s, like our neighboring states. In the Milwaukee metropolitan area, our income is 6 percent below the national average, whereas in Chicago, it’s 12 percent above the national average. Forming an alliance or merger between UWM and UWW is not about turf, it’s not about punishing, it’s about moving forward with opportunities for people to help themselves move into a four-year degree."
SBT: Does Waukesha County need another hospital?
Vrakas: "I want to make sure that Waukesha County is neither under-served nor over-served in the hospital capacity. If you’re referring specifically to the Aurora hospital, like everyone, I’m waiting to see how the litigation turns out before I’m commenting on that."
SBT: Printing is a big industry in Waukesha County. What can be done to both retain and attract more of that industry to the county?
Vrakas: "We’re certainly one of the leaders in printing. One of the things we need to do is promote our clusters – printing and logistics are huge in Waukesha County. And those are well-paying, family supporting jobs. I am excited about the new printing center at WCTC. This is a public-private partnership. And any efforts along those lines are something we ought to continue. Transportation is a huge issue to the printing companies. And that’s another area where a lot of my business and economic development focus will really help all businesses. We’ve got to continue to make sure that the state is providing what it takes for us to continue be a major part of the paper and printing industry."