Walworth County’s 2020 budget has passed another milestone.
Supervisors completed the final step prior to budget adoption by holding a public hearing on the proposed spending plan on the evening of Oct. 29. State law requires a county to hold a public hearing on its proposed budget before it is adopted. Many Wisconsin counties actually hold this hearing immediately before they take their vote. We separate the hearing from budget adoption, typically by several weeks, to allow supervisors to carefully consider the public’s input and prepare amendments if they feel the preliminary budget should be modified.
Our public budget hearing has gone through some significant changes over the years. Years ago, the board chair would simply call the hearing to order and ask anyone in attendance for their comments on the budget. There was nothing wrong with this; however, unless they had done a considerable amount of homework in advance, members of the public often lacked any context in which to consider the spending plan.
To help provide that background, Finance Director Jessica Conley began presenting an overview of the proposed budget. The presentations were always well done, and this year’s was no exception. In addition to explaining how tax dollars will be spent in the upcoming year, Jessica provides some interesting facts concerning our county’s financial position including the following:
Decreasing tax levy. Since 2011, Wisconsin counties have operated under strict levy limits. One interesting fact is that the levy needed to support our 2020 budget is actually $1.1 million less than the levy needed to support the 2011 budget.
Two significant reasons for this decrease are the elimination of our general obligation debt, and the restructuring of our Children with Disabilities Education Board (CDEB) program.
Our debt service payment in 2011 (the principal and interest required to service the debt) was $4,177,192. By paying off all of our debt, tax dollars that had been paid to bondholders are now being used to provide services to the public.
Changes to our special education needs program also played an important role. Walworth County was an innovator in providing services to children with special education needs ever since our first program began in 1950. Over time the program grew, and by the early 2000s, Walworth County teachers were educating over 2,000 students in 35 different schools throughout the county.
In desperate need of replacing our aging 1960s-era Lakeland School and facing a significant expansion of administrative staff to oversee the rapidly growing student body, our CDEB program faced an uncertain future. In 2005, our county made the decision to replace the Lakeland School on the condition of transitioning out of providing district-based services over a 10-year period. With the ability to focus on a more manageable program, our own Lakeland School has flourished, providing an important option for students in our county. The tax levy needed to support our CDEB program in 2020 is actually $2.3 million less than it was in 2011.
Equalized Value. Jessica pointed to some good news regarding our county’s equalized value. Equalized value is the value of all taxable property in the county. It is, in theory, the price that would be fetched if every resident’s home and all the businesses were sold. It is one of three variables that are used in calculating the share of the county tax levy that you will actually pay.
The good news for property owners is that our county’s equalized value has finally recovered from the hit it took after the Great Recession in 2008. Walworth County’s equalized value, including tax incremental financing districts, now stands at over $15.7 billion. It took 10 years for property values to recover from the previous high of $15.6 billion in 2009. Since homes typically represent the largest single asset of many individuals, the increase should mean that the personal balance sheets of county residents have improved.
Equalized and assessed values are frequently misunderstood concepts. The fact that equalized value has increased does not necessarily mean the county portion of your taxes will go up. Equalized value is used to determine a mill rate, which is then applied to the value of your specific property. The average total county mill rate in 2019 was $4.02. The rate projected for 2020 is $3.87, a decrease of about 15 cents per thousand of equalized value or a 3.8% average mill rate decrease. The last time the average mill rate was this low was for the 2008 tax levy, which supported our 2009 budget.
Keep in mind that this mill rate is a countywide average and is most likely not going to be what you see on your tax bill. Several factors go into computing your individual tax rate, including the county levies that you actually pay. City and village residents served by a municipally-supported library, for example, do not pay the county library levy. Don’t forget that the tax bill you receive in December will support entities other than county government, including your school district and town or municipality.
In the event you were not able to attend the public hearing, you can view our finance director’s presentation on our recently redesigned website, www.co.walworth.wi.us. Click on the “Government” tab, followed by “Board of Supervisors” and then follow the link entitled “View the Most Recent Agendas and Minutes.” This will take you to the archived video of the public budget hearing.
The board still has an opportunity to amend the budget, which is scheduled to be adopted at the board’s next regular meeting, which will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 12.
David Bretl is the county administrator for Walworth County. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.