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Administrator's budget work



ED_Dave_Bretl
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September 21, 2011 | 07:13 AM
Labor Day for me usually means just that, a fair amount of labor as I put the finishing touches on the county's 2012 budget. After weeks of number crunching and meetings with county staff, the first draft of next year's spending plan, known as the county administrator's budget, is traditionally presented to the County Board on Thursday following Labor Day.

The final piece of the budget, that I always vow I will finish before the holiday weekend, but never do, is a letter to County Board supervisors that accompanies the budget materials. The budget letter, as it has come to be known, is an attempt to describe, in words, what all the numbers mean and to explain the overall strategy that the budget hopes to accomplish. The budget letter has grown considerably over the years. The first one that I wrote to accompany the 2002 budget was three pages. Last year's ran 18 pages and this year's, well, it's not done yet, but I still have a good seven or eight hours before my final "drop-dead" deadline. Despite consistently missing my pre-holiday deadline, one lesson I have learned over the years is the time it takes to physically produce the materials that comprise the administrator's budget. After struggling with bulky printers and jammed copiers one year, minutes before the board meeting, I now allow a full business day to produce all of the documents. When I occasionally forget this rule and suggest a few last minute changes, the panicked expressions of staff members, furiously copying and assembling all of the paperwork, remind me that at a certain point I have to leave well enough alone.

The budget letter has grown, over the years, in part, based on the demands for information. Supervisors, swamped with all of the documents comprising the $150 million spending plan, use the letter as a starting point to learn what is being proposed. The media, likewise, gravitates to the letter, at least in early stories, to inform the public about the budget. When the board makes its decisions in November, the letter is revised and included in the county's "Budget in Brief." That pamphlet, which provides a snapshot of county finances, is used as a handout for school and civic groups throughout the year. Finally, we have noticed that the letter is used by financial analysts who evaluate the county's credit-worthiness. While these analysts examine many other financial documents to prepare our bond rating, the budget letter helps them put county finances in context. Two major factors shaped this year's budget.

• State budget picture. The political turmoil that gripped Madison earlier this year will have significant impacts locally as the county implements mandates of the state budget and budget repair bill. The effects of that legislation are three-fold: a reduction in aid, increased employee pension contributions, work rule changes, and strict tax levy caps. The state balanced its books, in large measure, by cutting the amount of money that it will return to local governments. To offset the loss in revenue the budget repair bill provided "tools" to allow leaders to cut costs. The primary tool was a requirement that public workers, with the exception of sworn law enforcement officers, contribute 5.8 percent of their wages towards their pension. Walworth County began collecting this premium from nonunion workers in August. With union contracts set to expire this December, we are estimating that this contribution will total over $2 million in 2012. As other expenses, such as fuel, utilities and many purchased services continue to escalate, employee retirement contributions played a critical role in balancing the county's 2012 budget.

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• Effects of poor economy. In each budget letter since 2009, I have had the unpleasant task of outlining some of the local effects of the lack-luster national economy. Low interest rates continue to reduce county investment revenue. Sales tax, which dropped by $1 million per year since the start of the recession, shows no signs of improving. Equalized value posted its second consecutive negative year, dropping over one percent in Walworth County in 2011. In addition to adding fewer nonproperty tax dollars to the county treasury, these factors demonstrate the stress that many taxpayers are under. Despite increased demands for county services, controlling costs must be an important goal of the 2012 budget.

By mid-September, budget documents including the budget letter will be posted on the website at www.co.walworth.wi.us. Those documents are updated throughout September and October to reflect board and committee changes. If you are interested in learning how the county will be spending your tax dollars next year, I would encourage you to check it out. If you have a better idea, contact your County Board Supervisor. The board has the final say as to what makes it into the budget. Better yet, you can share your views, in person. There are numerous opportunities for public input throughout the approval process. During meetings, which take place during the week of Sept 19, standing committees of the County Board will modify the county administrator's budget and approve a preliminary budget. The preliminary budget, in turn, will be the subject of a public hearing on Nov. 1, with final approval scheduled for Nov. 8. In my next column I will provide highlights of the 2012 plan.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.

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