County will borrow for roads again, but tax rate steady
“Pretty steady” are two words Clark County Comptroller Terri Domaszek used last week to describe the county’s recent property tax rate trend. In fact, the numbers show, the amount an average property owner pays each year for county services has varied only a few dollars since 2014.
On a 28-0 vote by the county Board of Supervisors following its Nov. 12 annual budget hearing at the Courthouse in Neillsville, the 2020 tax rate has been set at $8.04 per $1,000 of property value, which means the owner of a $100,000 home will pay $804 next year for services such as sheriff’s department coverage, social/community services, the forestry and parks system, the county health care center, etc. The rate for this year was just a tad higher at $8.05. The change means that $100,000 homeowner will pay $1.03 less in county taxes.
That rate has been “pretty steady,” as Domaszek said, in the last five years. It has barely fluctuated from the $8.09 rate of 2014 as the county has adhered to a state law that says it can only raise the tax rate according to how much new construction it experiences. The rate is significantly higher than the $6.67 mark of 2008, but it has dropped considerably from the record level of $9.41 in 1989.
Getting the final tax rate to within a penny of the prior year’s level is no simple tax with an inch-thick budget document that accounts for $68.6 million in total spending and covers 29 departments ranging from emergency management to veterans services to highways to land conservation. The annual budget process takes several months to complete and culminates in the annual public hearing and final adoption in November. Only one county resident spoke at this year’s public hearing.
The 2020 budget again includes a shortterm borrowing package that allows the county to circumvent the state tax levy rate freeze yet still find enough money to pave significant miles of county roads. After all the other expenses deemed necessary by the county Finance Committee were totaled, the county was at its levy limit but still about $2.6 million short of what it would need to re-pave enough of the 301-mile county highway system to keep it at a 20-year repaving cycle. The Finance Committee also decided the county needs $353,520 to buy upgraded election system equipment for all county towns, village and cities, and $450,000 to replace a bridge in the town of Unity that was found earlier this year to be in stressed condition.
What the county will do is borrow $2.95 million from Citizens State Bank of Loyal around April 1, and then pay the loan back within a month. By doing so, the payment will count as debt levy and not base levy, which is subject to the tax rate freeze. The move will cost the county $6,062 in interest, but it will provide enough funds to pave 14 miles of county highways. Without the extra funds, the budget could cover only about two miles.
The highways that will be repaved in 2020 include: — a 6.4-mile stretch of County Road B eastward from Humbird in the town of Mentor (last paved in 1997).
— a 3-mile stretch of County Road OO between CTH G and Spencer Road in the town of Eaton (last paved in 1999) — a 4.6 mile stretch of County Road I in the town of Foster (last paved in 1998).
Borrowing the $2.95 million requires a vote of a threefourths majority (at least 22 votes) of the 29-member County Board. It passed on a 28-0 vote.
Prior to the vote, Supervisor Bryce Luchterhand of Unity said he objects not to the loan, but the state tax rate law that forces the county to take such action.
“I strongly advise that we do it,” Luchterhand said. “The problem I have is that we have to do it.” He said the state Legislature should allow counties to make their own spending and taxation decisions. The county has to incur the $6,062 in interest due to legislators “that think they know better for Clark County than we do,” Luchterhand said.
In her presentation to the Board, Domaszek said the county is attempting to borrow a modest amount each year to keep up with road work, rather than letting asphalt deteriorate all at once.
“Without the additional debt (in 2020) we could temporarily see our levy go down but then really jump up when we do need to fund more roads in the future as we see roads deteriorate,” she said.
The $2.95 million loan will only be outstanding for one month, so it will not impact the county’s overall debt load, which is slight. The only other debt the county has at this time is a $3 million note it took out in 2015 to fund a county radio communication system upgrade. That loan — at 3.25 percent — will be repaid by 2025.
By law, the county could borrow an amount equivalent to 5 percent of its equalized valuation, or $114.5 million.
Although the county tax rate — the amount assessed to property owners per $1,000 of property value they own — won’t rise again this year, the total amount of dollars collected from property owners will. The total levy will jump from $16.7 million to $17.8 million, a new record level. That is allowed by state law if the county has appropriate growth in total property values. Total equalized value did take a healthy jump in the past year, to more than $2.2 billion. While property values have been rising by only about 1 percent in recent years, Clark County’s took a 3.74 percent jump in the last year, in part due to construction of a frac sand mine facility in the southwestern town of Mentor.
The 2020 spending plan includes about $4.1 million for capital improvements. A large part of that amount is a $930,000 expenditure to build a new multi-purpose building at the Fairgrounds in Neillsville. Private donations are being solicited now to pay for half of that amount, which will be returned to the county’s general fund over the next four years.
Other capital expenditures in the budget include: — $839,200 for the Rehabilitation & Living Center near Owen, for remodeling ($400,000), roof repairs ($80,000), air conditioning replacement ($80,000), farm shed replacement ($60,000) and other smaller improvements.
— $700,000 for highway department equipment, including $380,000 for two new large trucks.
— $376,817 in technology system upgrades, including $95,000 to add equipment for a fourth Sheriff’s Department dispatch position and $72,000 for Courthouse security cameras.
— $353,520 for the new election equipment, which the county will buy for each municipality instead of requiring each town, village and city to buy their own.
— $337,750 for Forestry & Parks Department vehicles, equipment and parks improvements.
— $222,640 for five new Sheriff’s Department vehicles and a $50,000 software upgrade.
— $99,000 for the Adult Development Service in Greenwood, including $75,000 for siding and window replacement.