By Shane Nicholson
DOWNTOWN — The Winnebago County board earlier this month approved a $296,012 payment to the Village of New Milford to cover missed payments under a host fee agreement.
The county says payments were made over the past eight years under the terms of a 2009 contract with the village. But New Milford contended it had never entered into the agreement, and a review of documents undertaken from August showed village officials had never signed onto the new terms.
In 2009, county officials negotiated a new contract with Chicago-based garbage hauler Groot Industries, reducing its per-ton fee for use of the county landfill from $3.47 to $2.47. Concurrently, the county was negotiating a lower rate of payment to New Milford under its host fee agreement, from 20 cents per ton down to 14 cents for Groot’s loads.
That contract, while signed by county officials, was never recognized in New Milford, village officials say. Bonnie Beard, who was village president in 2009, passed away in Sept. 2016. Current Village President Tim Owens, who sat on new Milford’s Board of Trustees when the contract was drawn up, told the Register Star in August that neither he nor two other members of the 2009 board recalled any discussions over the host fee.
New Milford asked for the payment of the missing funds in February.
Sources The Times talked to last week said the missing contract was likely due to an “administrative error” within the county government. “This feasibly could’ve ended up being lost, or just placed in the wrong file,” one source said.
Current and former county board members said the time around the contract’s initial implementation was one of upheaval within the administration of former Chairman Scott Christiansen. A number of departments were shaken up as administrative staff numbers were reduced, leading to the potential for such an oversight to take place.
But, some question why the current chairman, Frank Haney, was hesitant to refer the New Milford contract to the state’s attorney for further investigation. County board members instead relied on Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests to gather information about the terms and conditions of the contract, including why it was never signed by the village.
The New Milford contract is just the latest in a string of unbudgeted payments incurred by the county. In May 2016, the Christiansen administration settled with Microsoft for $283,000 over the use of unlicensed software on its machines. In July, Winnebago County had to reimburse FEMA $89,000 for 2008 land purchases on Blackhawk Island. And in August, the county board determined it was behind on a year’s worth of quarterly payments to the Greater Rockford Airport Authority to the tune of $565,000.
Haney has called the mishaps unfortunate and part of the process of cleaning up a county financial state rife with problems that his administration inherited.
Sources said internal requests for a forensic audit of the county’s finances have so far been rebuffed. R.