This summer, Marathon County will receive an itemized bid for what it will cost to create a uniform addressing system for all county towns including at least four villages (Weston, Rothschild, Stratford and Kronenwetter). It will get quotes on new six-digit, reflective address signs and steel posts to be installed on the left side of parcel driveways.

But then things will get interesting, because the county board will have a decision to make. It can agree to spend the $1.2 million it has budgeted to give municipalities for addressing or, given that only half of the county’s 60,000 addresses will likely be part of the new system, reduce its outlay.

Plenty of supervisors will want to save the money and help fund priorities in the 2018 county budget—there’s already a projected $3.8 million deficit.

I say the county should spend the entire $1.2 million on addressing, even if that means giving municipalities $40 per address, not the $20 earlier promised.

This should be the county position after listening to the arguments of town officials criticizing the county addressing system at the Jan. 26 Western Marathon County Towns and Villages Association meeting. Those officials called the addressing project an unfunded mandate. They said the county was all too eager to have a professional installer put up 30,000 of the large, blue-and-white reflective signs when, of course, the county’s costs, but not the township’s, are fixed at $20 per property.

Town of Emmet clerk Jerry Fitzgerald told county officials their approach to the addressing project was mystifying. When a town considers reconstructing a road, he said, officials gather quotes, figure out a project cost and only then decide whether to proceed. The county’s approach to uniform addressing, he complained, was just the opposite. The county agreed to the project and only now is getting bids, he said.

These municipal officials begged the county to let them install the signs and, perhaps, save money. Even Athens Fire Chief Ron Lavicka thought this was a good idea. “I don’t see why they can’t put them up,” he said about the signs. “That would save a lot of money.” County spokesmen from the Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department, however, said a single contractor putting up signs was the only way to achieve consistency, which, supposedly, is key to public safety.

Town officials didn’t buy this line and neither do I. The county has at least some argument about public safety risks when an emergency dispatcher could send an ambulance to a wrong duplicate address. But there is no argument that public safety is threatened because a worker might put up an address sign on the right side of a driveway, not the left. Town crews have installed address signs in front of parcels for generations, not to mention stop signs, street signs and every other kind of sign. It’s bizarre to seriously argue that a town or village would somehow place address signs in a fatally incorrect location.

My guess is that the sign and post specified by the county will likely cost around $40–$50 installed. The $20 promised by the county doesn’t cut it. Think through what it means if the county holds to its $20 grant. A local town board with 300 or so addresses in its jurisdiction could be stuck with something like a $9,000 bill. Faced with strict state-imposed levy limits, a town would have no choice but to cut its road maintenance budget by this amount. This means less granite on the roads, less blacktop. Poorly maintained roads are a safety hazard. It’s nonsensical to try and improve public safety with a new addressing system while financing the project by cutting local highway budgets. With the new address signs, we won’t die because an ambulance is sent to the wrong part of the county. Instead, we’ll die in a car crash.

It can be argued, of course, that local governments can simply approve special assessments and recoup their costs to put up signs from property owners. Such a plan, however, makes local governments the target for inevitable residential complaints about addressing. The county board, instead, can just as easily raise property taxes for debt service and borrow a sum to pay for addressing signs.

In both cases, residents will complain about getting new addresses. The latter case is preferable, however. The complaints about addressing will at least go to the officials who dreamt up the project in the first place.

Peter Weinschenk is editor of the Record Review newspaper, serving Marathon, Athens, Edgar and Stratford, where this column also appears.