Waupaca County Board Chairman Dick Koeppen was elected president of the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) and sworn into office Sept. 26 during the WCA Annual Conference in Sauk County.
A member of the Waupaca County Board since 1998, Koeppen was elected to chair the board in 2004. “I became Waupaca Couny’s delegate to the WCA when I became the county board chair,” Koeppen said.
He has been on the WCA Board of Directors for two years and has chaired a number of WCA committees prior to being nominated for the presidency.
WCA represents the interests of county governments at the state and federal levels. Its board of directors consists of 22 county officials nominated from each of WCA’s seven regional districts.
In his acceptance speech at the WCA conference, Koeppen described the path that led to his involvement in county and municipal government.
“It all started with a chip on my shoulder,” Koeppen said.
In the spring of 1976, Koeppen was playing baseball with the Clintonville A’s, a semi-pro baseball team.
“One night, the new parks director came by the diamond in the park and kicked us off the field and said we couldn’t practice there. I was so mad the next week I went to the city council meeting to complain about this issue,” Koeppen recalled. “One week after that, the mayor of Clintonville called and asked if I’d be on the Parks and Rec Board. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Koeppen served on various city committees over the next 14 years. In 1990, he ran for the Clintonville City Council. He served on the council for 10 years, then as mayor of Clintonville from 2000-2004.
“In 1998, my wife asked me that fateful question: ‘Have you thought about running for the county board?’ I went over and sat in on a meeting and was struck immediately by the professionalism of the people serving on the board.” Koeppen said. That year he was elected to his first term on the county board.
In addition to WCA’s lobbying efforts on behalf of county governments, Koeppen pointed to the organization’s role in helping Waupaca County government revolutionize the way it develops its annual budget.
In the past, Koeppen noted, departments and the committees overseeing them have viewed budgeting as a competition for shrinking revenues. Each department and its committee would propose its own budget and present it to the Finance Committee. The combined departmental budgets usually exceeded the total budget goals that the Finance Committee had set and there would be a long process of line-by-line analysis and elimination.
While drafting its 2009 budget, Waupaca County faced a projected shortfall of $1 million due to lower sales tax revenues, lower earnings on interest and rising costs. The county managed to balance its 2009 budget through a combination of department cuts, furlough days and increased fees where possible.
Immediately after passing the 2009 budget in the fall of 2008, Waupaca County began working on its 2010 budget. Given its spending and revenue history, the county projected a $2.5 million deficit for 2010. Koeppen and others in county government saw the need to reinvent the budget process.
“We implemented a management team concept, which actively involved department heads in budgeting,” Koeppen said. “We started with a two-day team-building seminar with the county board and department heads and it was a big success. We had a real breakthrough.”
Koeppen worked with Mike Koles, with the University of Wisconsin Extension office in Waupaca County, and WCA Executive Director Mark D. O’Connell in developing and promoting the county’s new budgeting process.
“We do not have a county administrator, so I invited the 24 department heads to get together and discuss their budgets as part of the management team and ultimately present their $70 million budget to the board’s Finance Committee,” Koeppen said.
“I’ll be honest, at first members of the board were not crazy with this approach, but once they realized that the departments communicated with each other more openly and truly began to understand what it was that other departments did, the each man and woman for himself mentality went away very quickly and open discussions flowed freely between departments,” Koeppen said.
Of all his accomplishments as chairman of the Waupaca County Board, Koeppen said he is most proud of his efforts to foster communication and better relationships among department heads and county supervisors.
“I firmly believe it is this dialogue that has been at the core of the success of our county and believe for any organization to thrive and grow, communication must be frequent and touch as many people as possible,” Koeppen said. “From department heads to citizens calling in to complain about their tax bill, I have always tried to reach out, to educate and to communicate.”
Koeppen plans to bring the same focus on communication and outreach to his new role as president of the WCA,
He has initiated the State and County Outreach Effort (SCORE) to build upon county government’s relations with state legislators and meet with them on a regular basis.
Koeppen is also updating WCA’s website to make it more informative and expanding its use of the social media.
WCA also plans to send its members daily news clips regarding county government so they can learn how other counties are responding to challenges.
“Now more than ever, we must continue to educate, educate, educate. It is no longer enough to sit back and expect that people understand what it is counties do and why we should be funded,” Koeppen said. “We must proactively become players in what is happening in our state.”
Koeppen’s term as WCA president will run through September of 2012.