The Walworth County 2021 budget is nearing the end of a long process of development and review. On Nov. 10, the county board will consider any final changes that might be proposed, and will vote to adopt a 2021 budget.
After living in the county for around 15 years, I felt privileged and honored to be involved in my first budget during this, my first year, as the Walworth County administrator. The document now under consideration remains true to and furthers the county’s strong financial history and core operating foundations.
By doing so, it strives to create stability to aid in recovery from a very unusual year.
Before I explain some of the new initiatives in the budget, it is likely best to explain the big picture, the issue on which most people focus: property taxes. Operating levy property taxes increase $745,266 to a total of $52,734,247. Spread out over slightly more than $16.4 billion dollars in equalized property value, the increase amounts to only 1.43 percent.
The county also collects property tax levies for communities that do not have their own library and for school districts that participate in Lakeland School (the Children with Disabilities Education Board). The end result is a net, average property tax levy increase of 1.35 percent. From the perspective of stability, our total tax levy for the 2021 budget is almost identical to the budget of 11 years ago.
With property values back on the rise, the average total county mill rate will drop about 18 cents to a projected $3.70, which is lower than any year going all the way back to the 1980s. It is worth noting that although the combined average increase is just 1.35 percent, the impact on individual properties will vary.
That is the big picture. Built into that big picture are new initiatives that I think are worth highlighting.
At the top of my list is an Embedded-Response Pilot Program that will enhance the relationship between Health and Human Services and law enforcement. Many times, law enforcement find themselves with limited options and in the difficult position of determining how best to resolve incidents involving mental health or substance use. To support law enforcement and to provide individuals in crisis with a rapid response, Crisis Intervention Specialists will be on site in two local police departments during peak call times to ensure immediate, community-based accessibility.
The pilot program’s success will focus on decreasing demands on police officer time responding to mental health and substance use crises, while providing more prompt, quality mental health care at the time of the crisis. The hope is that early intervention will also increase the likelihood the incident remains stable and the individual engages in continued services and achieves long-term positive results.
I expressed to the county board that my only concerns about the program are that every police department will want one ASAP, and that the county will need to find additional resources in the future to do so.
Probably of less interest to the general public, but of importance to the stability of the county as an organization, is the creation of a Risk Management Office and position. Risk management has been a function in the county that has moved around to different departments. This budget establishes risk management as a discipline of its own that will offer its professional support and expertise to where those other departments intersect with risk and insurances.
Risk management is sort of the quality-control component for the insurance program: The goal is to find problems before they find you. Enhancing this function will give the county greater long-term protections.
The county will also be expanding its interactions with different social media platforms. For many segments of society, social media rules. Government’s primary and historic methods of disseminating information no longer reach a sufficient audience. We cannot force people to follow traditional sources for information from the county; therefore, to ensure openness and transparency, we need to bring more information to these other sources.
The budget incorporates redefining a position to include duties equivalent to a half-time Communications Coordinator. (If that sounds interesting to you and you have the skill set, look to our website for the job announcement.)
A key development in the 2021 budget is firming up decisions on the Lakeland Health Care Center that are the result of a continued review of the facility throughout 2020. The budget stabilizes its continued operation as a 90-bed facility instead of 120 beds. Analysis by consultants determined there simply is not the demand for the additional beds considering the existing private facilities and current and future demographic trends. By taking this action, levy supporting the facility for 2021 can effectively remain at the level established in the original 2020 budget.
Lastly, I would note that the 2021 budget begins a multi-year project to replace our existing, outdated radio communication infrastructure with a public safety radio system serving all Walworth County first responders. Simply said, outdated technology has to go, if these critical public safety services are going to succeed. After years of review, a four-year project estimated at $22.6 million for the county portion of the project starts with a $2.5 million 2021 appropriation.
It is an extensive project that spans everything from new radio towers to new radios, and everything dispatch-related in between that connects them. Despite the hefty price tag, this is an essential service and an essential project, and it is all expected to be accomplished without any borrowing.
Again, the county board will consider the budget on Nov. 10 at 3:30 p.m. as part of their regular monthly meeting. For those who want a detailed, yet concise, presentation on Walworth County’s 2021 budget proposal, please go to the Finance Department page of the county’s website at co.walworth.wi.us.
Mark Luberda 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.