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Proposed levy up 2.88 percent from last year

County administrator imposes limited hiring freeze

FUNDING INCLUDED IN PROPOSED LEVY - The proposed 2011 levy shows set asides for: n Walworth County Fair, $15,000 up from $10,000 last year; n Walworth County Housing Authority, $10,000 up from $7,500 last year. n Association for the Prevention of Family Violence, $28,000, up from $25,200; n Walworth County Historical Society, $10,000, unchanged from last year. n Walworth County Visitor's Bureau, $130,000, unchanged. n The Volunteer Connection, $10,000, up from $6,000. This was the first step for county approval of a 2011 budget. According to County Administrator David Bretl's timeline, the levy will be reviewed and discussed: n Sept. 20, the Public Works committee which will discuss appeals to the administrator's capital improvement budget. n Sept. 22, the Human Resources committee will consider appeals to the administrator's limited hiring freeze and other position requests. n Sept. 23, the Finance Committee will hear appeals to the county operating budget and to consider the recommendations of the Human Resources and Public Works committees. The Finance committee will then send a preliminary budget to the County Board. n The budget hearing will be Nov. 1. The County Board is expected to approve the budget and levy on Nov. 9.
September 15, 2010 | 08:48 AM
Elkhorn — The proposed 2011 levy for Walworth County shows a bare 2.88 percent increase over this year.

But with countywide unemployment up and county property values in decline for the first time in more than a decade, the County Board must continue to economize and keep expenses under control, said County Adminstrator David Bretl.

Bretl brought his proposed levy numbers to the Walworth County Board on Thursday to start the annual budget process. The proposed 2.88 percent fits within the County Board's guidelines set earlier this year that the levy increase for 2011 not exceed 2.89 percent.

Bretl is proposing the 2011 county levy for all purposes will be $60.8 million, about $1.7 million more than last year's total levy of $59.1 million.

The anticipated county tax rate under the proposed levy would be $4.20 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, which would be about 6 percent higher than the $3.96 rate levied last year.

This year, three fortunate developments helped keep projected costs under control, Bretl said. First was a zero percent increase in the county's Health Insurance Fund. Bretl said county employees pay a share of their group health insurance, and the insurance carrier has a program of wellness screening to keep costs down.

The county also saw a decline in the Children with Disabilities Education Board levy, as school districts pick up more of the costs for educating special needs students.

The county is about halfway through a 10-year program of shifting special education costs from the county to the schools, so the schools will pay for special education within the class room, while the county continues to fund special education classes at Lakeland School.

The county also saw a continuing decline in debt service.

"Those factors assisted us in reaching our target," Bretl said. He is not, however, counting on those factors to continue into 2012.

"I would be surprised if we have two years of a health insurance freeze," Bretl said. He added that the CDEB levy will eventually increase as well.

Finally, the state is in financial straits. Cuts in expenditures is one way the state may balance its budget. "The easiest thing for the state to do is short the counties," Bretl said.

In keeping with the unkind economic realities, the recession has impacted Walworth County. The Wisconsin Department of Revenue recently released figures showing that, for the first time in at least a decade, the county's property values have declined over the past year. Equalized assessments are down 3.59 percent, Bretl said.

Meanwhile, unemployment is up. The county's unemployment was at 4.2 percent in July 2008. In July 2009, it was 9 percent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, its most recent unemployment figures showed 8 percent unemployed in Walworth County as of May this year.

"It paints a picture of taxpayers under stress," Bretl said.

Spending controls are needed, and Bretl proposed a modified hiring freeze and put a proposed jail expansion off for another three years as ways to slow spending.

Still, the county must be careful as it economizes.

"We can make some shortsighted cuts that would hurt us in the long term," said Bretl, who urged the County Board to continue to replace vehicles as required and conduct regularly scheduled maintenance on buildings and machinery.

"We can position ourselves in 2011 so that we'll be in a much better position when 2010 rolls around," said Bretl. "We need to get some new tools in our tool box."

And the new tool he proposed will control the rate of county hiring.

Under authorization by ordinance, Bretl said he was implementing a partial hiring freeze starting immediately. The county's past practice of hiring to replace departing employees will stop.

"The day of the automatic rehiring is done for a while," Bretl said.

Now, the County Board's Human Resources Committee will have to review each department's request for any hiring.

While the Human Resource Committee is free to set its own criteria for determining whether to fill a position, Bretl suggested that the committee consider asking the following questions when considering hiring:

n Is the county committed to continuing the program for which the position is sought?

n Does the county have the financial means to fund the position in the long term?

n Would the worker, if hired, have the skills and qualifications to perform other work in the event the position for which he or she is hired would be eliminated?

n Is grant funding available to offset the cost of the position and is that source of funding reliable?

n Is there another way to provide the service or program?

The county has cut its number of full-time equivalent employees from 1,047 in 2001 to 846 in 2010.

And the staff reductions are continuing. According to Bretl's figures, the county cut about 14.5 full time equivalent positions in 2010 and the 2011 budget proposes another 6.3 positions cut.

Four of the positions will disappear from the special education fund, as special education positions in the school districts transition from the county to the districts.

While the county workforce has been shrinking, Bretl said other cost-cutting moves used by other counties, such as temporary furloughs, have not been used in Walworth County.

In adddition, Bretl said he's postponed a proposed expansion of the Walworth County Jail. The county's 2011 capital plan included $9.6 million for jail expansion. That expense was moved out to 2014, with an anticipated cost of $11.5 million.

Meanwhile, the County Board's Executive Committee has been studying alternatives to a bricks and mortar solution to jail overcrowding. Bretl said he put $150,000 into the county budget to explore program alternatives to incarceration over the next year.

Finally, Bretl said he provided some money as a "safety net" for programs and organizations that provide services for the county.

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