County works to close $600,000 budget hole
With days of budget review sessions completed, Taylor County is chipping away at a projected $600,000 shortfall between the proposed budget and the state’s levy cap. Budget review sessions were held on Thursday, Sept. 10 and again on Tuesday, Sept. 15 with the final session scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 29.
County finance director Larry Brandl told members of the county finance committee that the county will need to find places to cut the $600,000 to bring the levy under the $11 million cap.
While this is a daunting task, Brandl said the county is actually in better shape than previous years where the difference between what was asked for and what was allowable was higher.
Brandl also expressed some comfort with the county planning to borrow for longer-term projects which will allow them to be taken off the general tax levy and fall under debt service. Given historically low interest rates it is feasible to look at spreading some projects over several years without incurring too large of an interest cost.
Brandl said that quite a few counties around the state borrow for all of their operation’s expenses and that way are able to exceed the levy limits. He said he disagreed with doing this and would only recommend borrowing money for capital projects such as highway or building construction. He said the county is in a good position to borrow funds since much of the existing debt service will be paid off in the next year.
Earlier this summer the finance committee set the directive for departments to prepare budgets with 2% reductions in operation expenses. This does not include wages and benefits which are set at the county level and are beyond the control of the department heads.
The key factor for wages and benefits will be how much, if any, the insurance premiums will increase in the coming year. Brandl built in a 5% increase when he prepared the draft budget, but will not know the actual increase until later in the budget process. Some more drastic general suggestions for bringing the spending in line with levy limits include forgoing employee step wage increases this year or implementing an across the board wage freeze. All county employees are on a pay matrix based on the responsibilities of their position and longevity with scheduled step increases in their base wages every few years until they reach the maximum for their job classifi cation. Brandl estimates the step increases for the coming year would total abut $70,000 in additional expenses for the county.
Brandl explained that it is not so much the spending that is out of line, but with reduction in outside sources of revenues. One such revenue area that hit already this year was with the loss of income from housing out of county inmates as Marathon County in particular cut back on the number being incarcerated. Sheriff Larry Woebbeking projected the county would receive $275,000 for housing inmates next year down considerably from recent years.
To make up the lost revenue, the sheriff proposed postponing the replacement of three sheriff’s department squad cars. Because of how the county leases the vehicles it will result in about a $90,000 savings over the next three years.
Woebbeking was also confident that the department would be able to trim the newly $90,000 in wages and benefits paid each year to deputy Steve Bowers who has been on paid administrative leave from the department since February 2017 and who is currently facing felony misconduct charges. Woebbeking reported he received a subpoena to testify at a trial this October. He said he talked to the assistant attorney general who is prosecuting the case and was told they hoped to have the case done before the end of the year.
“I hope you are right,” said finance committee chairman Chuck Zenner.
Budget highlights through two days of hearings include: The UW-Extension budget is being reduced by $19,755, about a 10% decrease. The cut was due to a half-time educator position being cut at the state level. “This was very good for our budget, but it was not good for the county,” said committee member Ray Soper noting the loss of the position will have a negative impact on the county.
Discussed disagreement with the price of services provided by Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NWPRC). “NWRPC is the easy button,” said county clerk Andria Farrand noting that it is easier to have the quasigovernmental agency assist with things like grant writing or administration than going through the process of hiring someone else. “It just rankles me,” said committee member Scott Mildbrand expressing concern over his view that NWRPC did less work this year due to COVID-19 and is asking for the same pay. “There are people in the county who have taken a big loss in wages,” Mildbrand said. He voted against approving the NWPRC budget.
The information technology (IT) budget is increasing in some areas to beef up the wireless network in the county buildings and increase overall bandwidth to allow for additional virtual private network (VPN) slots needed to allow people to work remotely. Mildbrand recorded a no vote for the IT budget due to it including additional money for that purpose.
Discussed upcoming projects with the highway department and the purchase of equipment. Commissioner Ben Stanfley said his department’s budget included plans to borrow for the construction of a new Rib Lake shop as well as for upcoming road projects for this year and next year. The 2022 project will include CTH from Hwy 13 to CTH Q. Stanfley said the additional work will allow the county to get on track to be on a 24-year pavement replacement schedule from the current 34-year replacement schedule.
Approved the health department budget showing few changes on the levysupported portion. As in the past health director Patty Krug said the county uses grant funds first before using levy dollars. She reported that they expect the work load due to COVID-19 to continue. Over the weekend, the county staff monitored 196 different individuals and as of Tuesday morning the county was up to 138 cases, of that number about half are considered active cases with the remainder either recovered or within the 30 days of the onset of symptoms. She noted that there were currently two to three individuals from the county hospitalized due to COVID-19.