Ozaukee is the grant guru

County has become so successful in securing state, federal money for a long list of projects that it has become the expert other governments turn to for help

A FAMILY STROLLED a boardwalk flanked by wildflowers at Ozaukee County’s Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton recently. Lion’s Den, one of the most popular county parks, was acquired and improved with grant money from state and federal agencies. Photos by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Last month, the Ozaukee County Natural Resources Committee recommended applying for as much as $1.54 million in state and federal funds to pay for everything from controlling farm runoff to improving Lake Michigan beach access to maintaining snowmobile trails.

If those applications are approved by the full County Board and awarded by an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies, the cost to Ozaukee County taxpayers will be virtually zero.

When it comes to using federal and state funds provided by taxpayers not living in Ozaukee County to benefit local residents with little or no cost to them, few are better at it than Ozaukee County officials.

So much so that they’re increasingly telling other counties and municipalities how to do the same.

“The goal is to share the knowledge we’ve gained over the past 10-plus years, particularly with more mundane projects but which have huge impacts, like the replacement of culverts,” county Planning and Parks Director Andrew Struck said. “We’re way ahead of the curve” compared to most other counties. 

In Wisconsin, grants from the federal government fund everything from health care to food stamps to foster care to equipment for first responders. All told, they account for about a third of the Wisconsin state budget.

In 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, the county received $6.235 million in grants directly from the federal government, with most of that going to health and human service areas, such as Medicaid and other programs, according to an annual federal audit.

A nearly equal amount came from the state.

Where Ozaukee County officials have excelled is with discretionary or competitive grant programs — particularly for land use, parks and the environment — beginning in 2009 with the onset of President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) when the federal government sought to jump-start the economy with a massive public works expenditure plan. 

That year, Ozaukee County applied for and received $5.2 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to improve fish passage in county rivers and streams.

It remains the single largest competitive grant award the county has received, Struck said.

“There were certainly grants before that, but it increased a lot through 2011 (because of ARRA),” Struck said. “We got some very large grants.”

Since 2009, the county has received more than $17 million in such grants, Struck said.

The NOAA funds were used to remove the Newburg dam and the Lime Kiln dam in Grafton, to repair or replace more than 50 culverts beneath highways and snowmobile trails and other projects.

Those grant funds have resulted in some extraordinary successes in bringing back native species, especially in Ulao and Mineral Spring creeks, he said.

“Northern pike has really been our target species,” he said.

As a result, the number of northern pike in Ulao Creek has jumped from zero to more than 3,000 young each year, he said.

Other grant-funded projects have included the Ozaukee Interurban Trail and Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve. The county is currently working on acquiring grants to purchase and develop the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve in the City of Port Washington.

Those projects and their successes have helped the county develop relationships with a number of private foundations and individuals.

They include the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, which joined the county in developing Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton and is helping lead the effort to acquire the 135-acre Cedar Gorge.

Many, if not most, grants require the county to provide local matching funds, a percentage of the project’s total cost.

By using county staff and other departments, such as the county Highway Department to install culverts, working with non-profits like the Land Trust to contribute funding or using other complementary grants, Struck and other county department heads have been able to satisfy matching requirements with little cost to county taxpayers.  

  “The department’s work allows the county to complete millions of dollars of work in our parks and on water quality efforts without any property taxes outside of a small contribution of in-kind staff support,” Ozaukee County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said. 

“The successful use of these dollars makes available funding sources from private foundations that would not be available without the county’s ability to provide proof of concept. When these sources are leveraged together the county is able to increase the impact of the public funding and the benefit to all of Ozaukee County.”

Grants help keep county staffers employed. Almost a third of Struck’s department, measured as 16 full-time equivalents, are paid for with grant funds, he said. 

That kind of success has led Struck and other county officials to reach out to other counties and municipalities.

Struck’s department is currently working with the Sheboygan Nature Conservancy on using grants to replace culverts to improve fish passages there. Ozaukee County also is partnering with Washington County on similar projects.

Working as a consultant to other agencies could generate new revenue, Struck said. 

“I don’t think it would be a huge income stream, but obviously we need to support our staff and it could open the door to additional grant funds,” he said.

The almost constant stream of grant applications, sometimes when the source of matching funds is not yet known, has worried and confused some supervisors who fear they may be committing the county to spending money it doesn’t have.

Supr. Bruce Ross, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said the degree of uncertainty over the grants and the matching funds concerns him.

“Keeping track of all these grants challenges my mental capacity,” he said to Struck at a Natural Resources Committee meeting this month. 

“Since we ramped up our grant work we have never come back to the County Board asking for additional dollars to complete a (grant-funded) project,” Struck said. “That’s since 2009 and $17 million.”

Federal grant funds are not free, of course. They’re tax dollars collected from every state in the country and then redistributed so that, in effect, taxpayers from Arizona to Vermont are paying for recreational opportunities in Ozaukee County and vice versa. 

“The County Board and I both understand the argument that many of these grants are tax dollars from the state and federal government,” Dzwinel said. “For that reason, we work hard to make sure these dollars are put to the highest use possible.”



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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