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Don’t cripple county services to chase short-term budget savings

What will it be, your right arm at the elbow or your left leg at the knee?

That is the choice facing Taylor County board members and residents as the county seeks to carve out a half-million dollars in cuts from the county’s budget due to some on county board being opposed to using the short term borrowing tools available to the county.

For the past two months, members of a five-person special committee have met with county department heads and staff members looking for places to cut expenses or increase non-tax revenues or, ideally, doing both.

The process has been about as comfortable as a root canal for all involved. Painful, but necessary. It is far easier to identify cuts in another department’s budget rather than your own. Without a clear picture of how departments actually operate, it is impossible for elected officials to make informed choices.

The committee’s primary task in these meetings was to do the legwork of reviewing each department’s budget and bringing the information to the executive committee and ultimately to the full county board. It will be up to the full board to decide what to cut and what to keep — at least in those areas not mandated by state law or paid for by specific grant funds.

What has become increasingly clear to everyone who sat in those meetings or who has been following the process, Taylor County runs lean. To be sure, there have been some areas where real savings will be seen, such as proposals from the airport manager to scale back on staffing levels in that area, or merging the real property lister and surveyor office with the retirement of the former county surveyor. Of course, taxpayers can’t overlook the $90 a year in savings that will be realized from canceling the service contract on the courthouse’s remaining typewriters.

For anyone who has been paying attention for the past few decades, it is not surprising that the county is finding it challenging to locate fat to trim. The county has been under levy freezes for more than two decades while Madison lawmakers have sought to micromanage local governments with the single-minded mission of keeping property taxes as low as possible. The county board has set the goal year after year of zero increases to county operational budgets.

Years of running lean and calling on county employees and departments to do more with less, has resulted in there being few options for making cuts other than jobs and services.

The budget review exercise did highlight that what one person views as a frivolous waste, others view as essential to maintaining health, safety and welfare.

The entire exercise came out of a budget deal that saw the county utilizing the short-term borrowing loophole in the levy limit for the first time to close a budget gap and improve cash flow reserves. That short term borrowing has been paid in full and at a minimal expense to taxpayers. It was the right tool for the job when facing a fundamentally broken state shared revenue system and should be used as needed in the future.

If Taylor County board members remain committed to reaching the goal of cutting $500,000, it will have to come in the form of deep and painful cuts eliminating county workers and services local residents rely on in order to save the average taxpayer less than $5 a month on their tax bill.