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County needs to use all available budget tools

The State of Wisconsin wants frugal counties to fail.

At least that is the message sent with the state government’s arbitrarily imposed revenue caps, which have, for decades, forced counties into a downward spiral of service and road maintenance cuts and inability to address current and future needs. The state-imposed revenue caps are one of the more egregious examples of Mama Madison’s overreach and robs residents of any real sense of self-determination in the hopes of keeping taxes low on legislators’ and their donors’ vacation homes.

Last week members of the Taylor County Finance and Personnel Committee began the formal process of reviewing the proposed departmental budgets. This is just the latest stage of the budget process that began in mid-summer when the county set its unrealistic goal of a zero-increase budget for operational costs.

Since then, department heads have been busy counting paperclips and making tough choices on how many pieces of copypaper their office can get by with in the coming year, or will they have to cut back in order to replace a piece of equipment or attend a professional development conference next year.

Despite the best efforts of the department heads and their oversight committees the reality this year, as with every other year the county has imposed a zero increase goal, the reality is costs go up.

The proposed budgets call for about $700,000 in additional expenses than projected revenues to cover them, which is about normal at this stage in the budget process. This will be cut down to about $500,000 when the historical amount of logging revenues are applied. The county has also seen a steady increase in local sales tax revenues, which will likewise reduce the projected deficit.

While these will make the budget gap smaller, it will still be there leading some of the more fiscally conservative members of the county board to call for deep cuts in personnel and services — while, of course, maintaining or increasing funding in the areas they feel are most important.

Taylor County is at a distinct disadvantage in the budgeting process due to the area’s strong aversion to debt. While Madison limits the amount counties can raise the levy, it also provides for a number of loopholes that allow local governments to exceed the levy for things like debt service and actually get things accomplished.

Taylor County supervisors need to get over their aversion to debt and use all the tools in the state’s toolbox to ensure that county services and roads are maintained. The proposed county budget calls for spending about $1.6 million to resurface and sealcoat county roads. Taking out a loan to cover that cost rather than using levy limited dollars to do so would free up that money for other needs and give the board the option to moderate expenses over time or pay it off entirely when tax settlements are made in February.

Taylor County is facing significant challenges in being competitive in attracting and retaining employees. County departments, like everyone in the private sector, have seen increased costs for materials, supplies and fuel. Standing still is moving backward and county board members must use the tools at their disposal to maintain levels of government services at their current levels.

By all means, the county’s budget committee should winnow through the budget in search of hidden Cadillacs and waste. These budget cutting tendencies must be tempered with understanding that things aren’t actually any worse than normal and there are tools in the toolbox to ensure county needs are met without gutting services.

Members of The Star News editorial board include Publisher Carol O’Leary, General Manager Kris O’Leary and News Editor Brian Wilson.