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County budget keeps taxes in check

County budget keeps taxes in check County budget keeps taxes in check

A proposed 2021 Marathon County budget unveiled Tuesday at the Human Resources, Finance and Property Committee maintains current services, ends deficit spending and does so with what amounts to a minimal increase in property taxes.

The budget, drafted by county administrator Lance Leonhard and finance director Kristi Palmer, enforces zero increase budgets across county departments but doesn’t make any major cuts to services.

The budget fully funds Start Right at $1.6 million. This is a non-mandated program to help at-risk families that is annually threatened with cuts. The program, which is partially funded by Badger Care reimbursements and local foundation grants, will receive $1.3 million in county tax levy.

The budget keeps county employment steady at 704 employees. It includes two position upgrades in the Emergency management Department and Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, while turning down four full-time positions sought by the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office.

The proposed budget will increase property taxes, but by only 2.3 percent. The budget proposes that an average county homeowner, whose house is valued at $169,170, will pay $766.34 in 2021 county property taxes. This is a $17.01 cent increase from the current year.

The county, whose tax base grew 6.6 percent to $11.5 billion this past year, will have a $4.53 cent tax rate, according to the proposed budget. The spending plan calls for a $51.9 million tax levy, an increase of $1.3 million over the current year.

The budget estimates $13.5 million in sales tax revenue in 2021. The combined sum of property and county sales taxes next year will pay for 41 percent of proposed $180.9 million in county spending.

Major budget highlights include:

_ Health insurance for county employees will increase 6.5 percent to $12.9 million, which is made possible through cuts to wellness program benefi ts and selection of a new pharmacy benefit manager. County family health insurance premiums will be $2,130 a month. Back in 1999, they were $584.

_ The county plans to save significant money by having fewer individuals in jail. The jail monthly inmate census has fallen dramatically from 355 in 2019 to 293 this year. Leonhard, in his budget message, credits this decline to jail alternative programs, including Drug Recovery Court, the Crisis Assessment Response Team, Hot Sheet Case Tracking, the Arrest Proxy Tool and active Warrant “Clean-up.” He said he reallocated $575,000 in jail expenses to fund police body cameras, special teams and public safety communications. The administrator said jail inmate numbers cannot be allowed to increase. “We cannot afford to go back to our jail census of years past,” he writes.

_ The budget provides a 2.3 percent increase in payroll to be paid out in merit pay increases.

In the last several years, county supervisors balanced budgets by siphoning money out of the county’s fund balance.

This practice will stop, Leonhard announces in his budget, while adding that promises to repay the county fund balance $1.6 million for the 2018 deficit spending or $400,000 to fix the jail last year will not be kept.

The budget sets aside $250,000 for matching a rural broadband services grant the county will apply for.

The public can comment on the budget at a Thursday, Nov. 5, hearing. The county board is scheduled to approve a final budget on Tuesday, Nov. 10.