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County seeks to climb out of budget hole

County seeks to climb out of budget hole County seeks to climb out of budget hole

The first of three budget review sessions by the Taylor County Finance and Personnel committee was held on September 15.

The county follows a multi-step process to review and approve the annual budget. Earlier this summer, department heads were directed to prepare budgets with zero percent operational increases excluding wages and benefits. The various oversight committees then reviewed the budgets for their departments and sent it to the county finance and personnel committee to be reviewed again and any final cuts, additions or changes made. Committee members approve each area of the budget and will approve a preliminary budget which will then go to the full county board for final action on October 26. While unusual to do so, the county board can also make changes on that day.

At last week’s several hour long budget session, members spent the bulk of their time discussing changes to the tourism budget to increase wages paid to the Medford Area Chamber of Commerce for event support as well as reviewing the forestry and highway department budgets.

Sue Emmerich of the Medford Area Chamber of Commerce noted that the existing reimbursement for the temporary wages was at $12 per hour. “We can’t hire someone for $12 per hour,” Emmerich said, noting that they are looking to fill the position open after a staff member left and are looking at paying closer to $20 per hour, which includes any fringes.

Such a jump would increase the overall county tourism budget significantly jumping it from $60,000 total to $87,000.

“Going from $12 to $20 per hour is quite a jump,” said committee member Jim Gebauer.

Committee member Scott Mildbrand said he would not be able to support a 25% increase in that budget.

Committee chairman Chuck Zenner supported some sort of increase noting that keeping it at $12 per hour was unrealistic. He also noted that tourism helps out the county’s sales tax as visitors to the community spend money and pay taxes here.

Mildbrand suggested the budget be sent back to the tourism committee, however the next tourism meeting isn’t until Oct. 11 which will be too late since the budget will have to be published before then.

“When was the last time you paid a county employee $12 per hour?” Emmerich asked.

County clerk Andria Farrand asked why the increases weren’t being made year by year noting incremental increases are easier to handle than big jumps. Emmerich noted the county has routinely asked for no increases and they followed that request but just couldn’t do it anymore.

Finance director Larry Brandl said the county is looking at the proposed budget being in deficit by between $750,000 and $800,000. However he said that this is about where the county started last year and did not express concern about their ability to bring it into balance.

Zenner suggested bringing the reimbursement rate to $16 per hour to soften the blow. Committee member Lester Lewis noted this was the first budget being reviewed and suggested it be accepted as presented and then come back and make cuts if that is necessary. “I don’t think we can begin balancing the budget on the first one,” he said.

“At some point we have to get going in the right direction,” Emmerich said.

Gebauer made a motion to accept the tourism budget raising the reimbursement to $15 per hour with Zenner seconding. The motion carried with member Cathy Lemke opposed.

In the forestry budget, administrator Jake Walcisak presented a budget with a 2.11% operation increase due primarily to a 40% increase in fuel as well as increases in materials and in paint used for marking trees. The increase comes out to about $1,840 in the levy portion of the forestry budget. “That is all inflationary,” he said, noting he trimmed and skimmed in a lot of areas to try to reduce it.

While it costs about $180,000 per year to run the forestry and recreation department, forest logging revenue brings in much more than that amount. The longterm average in logging revenues brought into the budget is about $338,000. Walcisak said they could be bringing over about another $150,000 in revenues to help with the overall budget.

There was also discussion about potential for the Chelsea Lake and Camp 8 dam projects to be over projections. Walcisak said they have been setting aside money in the dam accounts and that when applying for the grants last winter they increased the cost based on projected price increases. He said he felt comfortable there was enough there to complete the projects.

There was discussion of the land acquisition fund with Mildbrand noting that it was his belief the fund should be lowered to $250,000 rather than being capped at $500,000. However, he noted this is used as part of the general county reserves so there would be little benefit of moving it. Walcisak noted that the land acquisition is built up from a portion of every timber sale. When the fund is at its capped amount, any additional revenues flow directly into the general fund. He said last year about $430,000 went into the general fund from forestry.

“That is a lot,” Lemke noted. The forestry budget was approved with plans to go back and adjust revenue projections as needed.

At $4.4 million in spending, the county’s highway department is one of the larger budget areas. As in past years, highway commissioner Ben Stanfley presented a 0% budget and what he considered to be the “ideal budget” to keep paving at 10.25 miles and chipseal at 20.5 miles. The ideal budget would require a 19.91% increase.

While the so-called ideal budget was not seriously considered, Mildbrand suggested the county may want to look at the equipment revenue and direct the first $100,000 in equipment revenue go to the general fund. The county charges out for equipment used for such things as road painting and other services to other government entities. Revenues collected are used to maintain and purchase new equipment.

Stanfley was opposed to pulling money from that selfsupporting system noting that it at times took several years to build up replacement funds for certain equipment. He was concerned that with the price increases the county would be going backward.

“There have to be some very tough decisions made,” Mildbrand said noting the county was in a budgetary pinch.

Stanfley noted that in essence by just keeping the amounts in his budget the same they are taking a 20% cut because the costs have gone up so much. “What I could do last year, I could do 80% of it this year,” he said.

“We have other ways to solve deficits when it comes to highways,” Lewis noted. He said highways are an important part of economic development and that without well maintained roads they would not have an economic base. “Highways is not the place to cut,” he said.

“In order to solve our budget issues we can’t just beat around the issues,” Mildbrand said. He also opposed any idea of borrowing funds to help with the budget.

“You start a financial death spiral, when you start borrowing money to pay wages you have big problems,” Mildbrand said. Lewis disagreed, noting it was a tool they have to use.

Committee members approved the highway budget with $4.4 million in spending and a levy impact of $2.76 million.