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Ross: Mayoral experience helps in regulatory agency revamp

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

If Dave Ross accomplishes anything at the new Department of Safety and Professional Services during his tenure, he hopes to make the agency more business-friendly.

And that, he says, should help Gov. Scott Walker achieve his goal of adding 250,000 jobs over the next four years.

But Ross says the agency – formed by combining the former Department of Regulation and Licensing and parts of the old Commerce Department – will continue to protect the public served by the many professionals DPS licenses.

The goal is to become “more customer-friendly” to both license holders and those who believe they've been wronged,” says Ross, a former small business owner and two-term mayor of Superior. He's also a past director of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities.

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“We want to make sure that people who are complaining about some injustice… are treated fairly and in an efficient manner,” adds Ross, who has been on the job for seven months. “And in a way that is business friendly to them, as well as our license holders who practice in this state.”

Ross says changes at his agency were expected and were a central piece of the Walker budget.

“When he campaigned, he spent a number of months talking about separating the two functions of Commerce,” he says. “One was to be the job generator ...attracting new jobs to the state. The other was enforcement.”

He says it makes sense to transfer enforcement to his agency.

“That’s exactly what we do,” he says. “So this merger… makes for a much more effective and efficient (agency) and will drive down the cost of enforcement.”

Though the moves tripled the size of the agency, Ross says it remains relatively small with around 400 employees overseeing 130 professions and 450,000 people.

In addition, his agency is now in charge of other regulatory areas, including petroleum, building plan, fair ride and ski lift inspections.

“Building plan inspection and review is very important to protect the health and safety of the public,” he says. “That’s what our agency has done in its history.''

Ross says his time as mayor has prepared him well to run his agency because the two jobs are “remarkably similar.”

He says in Superior, he wanted police, fire fighters and building inspectors to protect the public.

At the same time, he wanted to make sure investors and business people weren't stymied by a building inspection department making it very difficult to “make investments and thus job growth in our community.”

“But it’s never either-or,” he says. “It’s not just all pro-business at the expense of protecting Wisconsin citizens from any damage or harm that comes from a license holder. It’s also protecting the public from a license holder that is doing harm to a citizen.”

Ross says the secret is “having the right balance… and seeking compliance if there was an infraction. I think more of that attitude would be good for our agency in the future.”

Ross says Superior thrived during his tenure. During one two-year period –- what he calls “boom years” –- he says the city had $133 million in equalized value growth.

“We had a number of projects and this did not count public-sector jobs and projects that happened on the UW-Superior campus,” he says. “During that time, we had the third-lowest unemployment rate in the state.''

Ross says he learned that investors are very sensitive to the business climate in a community. He says they don’t want to put money into a community and then learn that their investment is viewed in a negative light.

“But we also want investors to know there are rules and regulations on how they are to do things,” he says.

So the city created a “point person” that investors, builders or “even a small guy working out of his truck doing remodeling” could contact and get a quick answer if they had a problem.

“We did this on several large capital projects where investors were worried that they would have to go through a number of different city agencies in order to get an answer,” he recalled.

Ross says he found from his own experience as a small businessman that working with government agencies could be “frustrating.”

On other topics, Ross says he:

--Would hate to lose deputy John Scocos, who may return to his old job as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, because “he’s a top-rate manager.”

--Wants to see a lower jobless rate, which recently rose from 7.4 percent to 7.6 percent as more people sought work.

“Do we need to get that that unemployment level to come down more?” he asks. “Absolutely, there are still people who need work and jobs. But I am so pleased that we are heading in the right direction when it comes to job growth.”


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