ELKHORN — County Administrator David Bretl presented a preliminary budget that holds the tax levy steady and includes the purchase of parkland in the town of Lyons.
“We have a levy freeze again. I’m happy to report that,” Bretl said during a Sept. 5 budget workshop. “We are levying just slightly less than we did in 2013.”
The total tax levy proposed is $60.88 million.
Bretl presented his preliminary budget Sept. 5 to the county board. On Sept. 19 the county’s finance committee will hear appeals to the budget before approving a preliminary budget. On Oct. 29 the board will hold a public hearing, and it will adopt a budget on Nov. 12.
Bretl’s budget includes purchasing parkland on Sheridan Springs and Short roads, which Bretl referred to as Clark Park. Although the majority of county board supervisors have expressed an interest in purchasing the land, four have said they are against buying it.
“I will probably not make four friends tonight. I have included money for the acquisition of Clark Park,” Bretl said. “ And hopefully that isn’t a surprise to people. I understand and respect the views of opponents of this. This is a question of roles, I work for the county board, there has been seven consistent votes in favor of Clark Park and I have included it in the budget.”
At the request of District Attorney Dan Necci, Bretl included funding for an additional Assistant District Attorney (ADA). Necci has reported that his office is understaffed for the caseload.
Typically, the county pays for the DA’s support staff and the state pays for the prosecutors.
Necci has lobbied the state Legislature for an additional ADA, but hasn’t received it. Bretl’s budget only calls for the county funding the ADA for 18 months.
Other budget items
n The budget also calls for security improvements to the Walworth County Judicial Center, which includes spending $250,000 to install a second elevator.
n A $259,000 vacuum truck for the county’s public works department.
n A $320,000 expenditure on improving information technology for the Land Use and Resource Management Department.
n Bretl also proposed that the Lakeland Health Care Center (LHCC) — which is the county’s nursing home — separate from the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services.
n Bretl proposed purchasing an additional cooling unit and generator for LHCC.
n In 2000, the county began borrowing money to pay for road projects to work around state-imposed levy limits. In 2013, the county implemented a plan to fund road project with the tax levy. As a result of this plan, Bretl said the county will complete about $17 million in road projects during the next five years.
Tax levy freeze
A tax levy freeze doesn’t necessarily mean a property owner’s tax bill will decrease. Instead, it means that the county is budgeting to spend the same amount of county tax dollars in 2014 as it did in 2013.
The effect this has on an individual property owner’s taxes will depend on whether the owner’s assessed value changed from the previous year. The county is also only one of the taxing bodies that appears on the final bill. Local municipalities, the state, local school districts and Gateway Technical College also appear on tax bills. Bretl said one of the reasons the tax levy freeze is possible is that the county has decreased its total debt. In 2006, the county made $7.9 million in debt payments. In 2013, the county is projected to pay about $2 million.
“There has been a huge decrease in the debt service column, that has provided a lot of flexibility in the budget,” Bretl said.
In 2013, the county board approved changes to its employee health insurance, which saved taxpayers about $1 million.
“That is one reason why we are able to come up with that levy freeze,” Bretl said. “Our employees are going to get a different plan than they had and will have larger co-pays and deductibles.”
Another factor is reduced spending with Children with Disabilities Education Board (CDEB). In the past, the county paid for special education teachers in the county’s 15 school district. However, through a 10-year plan, that cost has slowly shifted to the school districts where the teachers teach.
Affects of Economic downturn
In 2009 the county’s equalized value — the total value of all the property in Walworth County — was $15.61 billion. For 2014 the equalized value is $13.18 billion.
Overall, property values in Walworth County have declined 15.57 percent since 2009.
“That is a sobering reminder of what people have to deal with,” Bretl said. “There were only two counties that had a larger decrease in equalized value since 2009. It has been a particularly harder hit here.”
In 2007, Walworth County collected $3 million on its investments. The county invests money it collects from property taxes until it needs to spend it. For next year, the county is projecting it will receive a half-million.
“Anybody with CDs or savings accounts can attest to the fact that they have the same problem we do,” Bretl said. “This is certainly a factor for folks living on a fixed income. So, in addition to hitting our revenue it has an impact out there in the community as well.”
Throughout the country municipalities have filed for bankruptcy. Detroit recently became the largest city to do so, and its unsustainable employee pension program was a major reason it filed for bankruptcy.
“I think you will be seeing more of this in the future,” Bretl said. “When you look at what has caused that there are some common themes, high debt, deteriorating infrastructure in those places and employee benefits that weren’t controlled or saved for.”
Bretl said the county board has taken steps to avoid those troubles. In 2005, the county had in excess of $23 million owed in Other Post Employment Liabilities (OPEL), which is primarily providing health insurance to its retirees.
To address this liability, in 2005, the county eliminated these benefits to new hires.
Annually, it also has been making multi-million contributions to the OPEL fund, and the county is now ahead of schedule on its payments. Because the county is ahead of schedule, Bretl has recommended making no contribution this year, and is proposing to use that money to cover other expenses.
Visit http://www.co.walworth.wi.us/ and click on “departments.” Then click on “finance.” When on the page for the county’s Finance Department, click on “budget.”