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Marathon Co. officials share their budget woes

Marathon  Co. officials share their budget woes Marathon  Co. officials share their budget woes

By Kevin O’Brien

The district attorney’s office is in desperate need of more staff. The county can’t afford to keep providing funding for local non-profits, even if the work they do is important. County workers who earn raises are likely to take home less money next year because of increasing health insurance costs.

Part of the county jail was even in danger of collapsing if $2 million wasn’t spent on emergency repairs.

Those were a few of the takeaways from Marathon County officials who spoke at a well-attended meeting of the Western Marathon County Towns and Villages Association held last week Wednesday in the town of Rib Falls.

Deputy county administrator Lance Leonard, who spoke at length about the county’s 2020 budget, was joined by several other officials, including sheriff Scott Parks and district attorney Theresa Wetzsteon, who made an impassioned plea for more staff.

“If our office doesn’t function right, we don’t get cases moving, and people sit up in our jail,” she said.

Wetzsteon is requesting $156,000 in additional county funding for a new prosecutor and a paralegal, which will still leave her office well below the staffing level recommended by the state. The county currently has 11 prosecutors, when it should have 18, she said.

The county was able to get state funding for one more prosecutor through the recently adopted biennium budget, but that was after Gov. Tony Evers used his line-item veto power to redirect funding for a second prosecutor to Milwaukee County, which has more than the recommended number of prosecutors, she said.

Wetzsteon said the county really shouldn’t have to absorb the expense for additional prosecutors, which is supposed to be a state responsibility, but it has been for years.

“I don’t know how the state finds that acceptable,” she said. “It’s unacceptable for public safety.”

To illustrate the need for more assistant DAs, she said the county currently has 1,760 open felony cases and 2,495 misdemeanors, with 300 to 400 new defendants entering the system every month.

A total of 16 different police departments across the county funnel all of their cases into her office, she said.

“If we don’t charge it in the DA’s office, it does not get charged,” she said.

This overwhelming caseload has created high turnover among prosecutors, with 40 of them having come and gone since 2002. Two of these attorneys resigned recently after the stress of their jobs caused medical problems, she noted.

Wetzsteon said understaffing in the DA’s office makes it difficult for the county to continue programs like jail diversion and drug court.

“If we can’t do our core job of prosecution, we can’t continue to spread ourselves out to those discretionary initiatives,” she said. Leonard said the DA’s request for more funding is not currently included in the 2020 budget proposal, but he expects it to be discussed further at a Nov. 12 public hearing in Wausau, which will be followed by a county board vote on Nov. 14.

The county’s $171 million budget, which covers 25 departments and about 700 employees, has already undergone some tight squeezing to stay within stateimposed tax levy limits, Leonard said.

Based on a proposal approved last year, the county will start phasing out funding for several non-profit organizations, such as the United Way, The Women’s Community and Partners for Progressive Agriculture.

The county has historically allocated between $400,000 and $500,000 every year for these groups, but starting in 2020, that amount will be reduced by 25 percent per year until it is brought to zero.

Leonard said cuts like this have to be considered when the county has trouble fully funding its own services.

“Can we really rationalize funding non-profits that at least arguably have the opportunity to seek that funding elsewhere?” he said. At the same time, Leonard said the county had to take steps to stave off a projected 12 percent hike in health insurance premiums next year. It was able to do this by increasing the amount of money county employees have to pay for their own health care.

As a result, employees who qualify for 2 percent performance-based raises will still see their income drop because of increases in deductibles and co-pays “So, effectively, they’re going to make less money than they did the year before,” he said. “That’s a tough pill for employees to swallow, but we had to do that to balance the budget.”

Going forward, though, Leonard said this could make it difficult to recruit and retain high-quality employees who may seek jobs elsewhere. He said the county needs to figure out how to invest more in these employees, including underpaid prosecutors in the DA’s office.

With the county limited in how much it can raise property taxes every year, Leonard said department heads have been asked to be more “entrepreneurial” — finding ways of generating more revenue through fees and constantly making their operations more efficient.

As an example of this, he singled out a change in the way the highway department picks up orange construction barrels, using automation to bring the threeperson crew down to two.

Leonard said the county will also need to do more borrowing in the future to meet its road maintenance and other infrastructure needs. Until now, he said Marathon County has gotten by without doing much bonding.

“We’re going to have to look at budgets differently,” he said.

This will also include downsizing the county’s brick-and-mortar footprint in the Wausau area, which currently has eight county buildings, he said.

“I think in the next five to 10 years, that’ll be down to three,” he said, though he did not specify how that would be accomplished. “We’re going to be consolidating our operations to become more effi cient and reduce costs and better serve the public.”

In the meantime, though, the county is having to spend money to address unexpected problems at its existing facilities, specifically the jail.

Sheriff Parks gave an update on emergency repairs being done at the jail’s 1988 addition, which was determined to have 40 concrete pillars that are failing.

“Once one pillar goes, it’s just like a domino effect. They all go down,” he said. “Anything that is damaged or weakened in any way will fall just as fast as possible.”

As a safety precaution, Parks said they immediately moved all the inmates out of that part of the jail, with 140 of them being housed at other county jails temporarily. Some non-violent offenders were also put on electronic monitors, leaving the county with 140 inmates in a facility built for 279.

The cost of the repairs, combined with the expense of housing inmates in other counties, will total around $3 million, the sheriff said. On the bright side, Parks said the jail recently passed its annual inspection by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

When a member of the audience asked if the county is looking into litigation against the contractor who built the 1988 addition, Leonard said “it’s being considered.”