County Board passes 2012 budget
In a marathon annual budget meeting that lasted close to five hours, the Oneida County Board of supervisors whittled $393,853 of property taxes needed to balance the budget to a negative $61,222. But it was tough going right from the beginning.
The original budget presented by the finance committee proposed a $2.22 rate per $1,000 of equalized value, or a 7.8 percent increase from last year. In 2011, the rate was $2.06 and in 2010 $1.99. The county board worked the rate down to $2.16 for 2012, or by 4.9 percent when all was said and done.
Ted Cushing, county board chairman and chairman of the finance committee, addressed the board after the hearing came into session. “We’ve worked very hard to get this budget where it is,” he said. “It figures out that a person with a $100,000 home will be paying $5.60 more (on their county tax bill) than last year, and I think that’s pretty reasonable,” he said. “We’ve had to make some very tough decisions, but as a county, we don’t want to be in the position of the state of Wisconsin. We have to accept our circumstances and we can’t push problems onto the next board that is elected.”
It was rumored that UW-Extension Youth Agent Jim Winkler’s position might possibly be cut, but a contingent of students and employees from that department filled the board room protesting that prospect. Students enumerated the variety of activities the extension supports, including the youth 4-H program, and begged to keep the position included on the county roster. But other audience members beseeched the board to lower the tax rate. “I own property in Rhinelander and in Harshaw, and I don’t see how the county can raise taxes by close to 8 percent,” said audience member Doug Evers. “There are 1,733 people delinquent on their taxes right now in this county, so how can you justify a tax increase? Every year it keeps going up. There will come a time when this community won’t be able to take it anymore. This is not a time for an 8 percent increase. This county should see tax decreases not increases.”
But county supervisor Bob Metropolus saw it another way. “I am a real estate appraiser in my profession, and see a lot of sad things with property in foreclosures and bank owned,” he said. “But people aren’t losing their homes because of property taxes. They are losing their homes because they mismanaged their personal finances. They overextended themselves. People aren’t going to lose their homes because of an extra $6 on their tax levy. This is a good budget, and we should pass it as it is.”
Supervisor Scott Holewinski disagreed. “At a zero increase in the (county) levy, people will see increases on their property tax bill because of increased equalized values,” he said. “There are 16 towns in this county that are going to see an increase, even if we balance the budget at zero.”
With that, Holewinski proposed a variety of cuts to whittle down the $393,853 tax increase, starting with per diems for board members. His proposal was for a $5 cut per committee meeting from $55 to $50 for the board chairman and $45 to $40 for county board members. In addition, he proposed cutting $5 from the $75 board members make when they attend the monthly county board meeting. “That could save the county $10,000 a year,” he said.
The board ultimately approved that cut, but there were some objections. “We aren’t over-charging anybody for these meetings,” said Supervisor Jack Martinson. “I’m for keeping it as it is.” Those voting not to cut per diems included Matt Matteson, Jack Hoffman, Tom Rudolph, Paul Dean, Martinson, Jim Sharon and Metropulos.
The board rejected a proposal to combine an accounting clerk position for the Department on Aging and the Health Department since these two agencies will be sharing a space in the former Northern Advantage building once the remodeling is finished. That move could have saved the county $51,000
Linda Conlon, director of the Health Department, told the board she was willing to try the cut. “But I’m wondering if it will work,” she said.
“This is too hasty of a decision and not good policy,” said Hoffman. Rudolph agreed, and throughout the meeting he vehemently expressed that the cuts being proposed at the hearing should have been explored at the Finance Committee level, and then gone through the Labor Relations and Employee Services Committee. “It’s like we are shooting from the hip here,” he said.
But Holewinski was adamant. “Well, then what’s the purpose of this (budget) hearing?” he shot back. “In this case, we take two positions and make it into one. We don’t give it to the department heads and then ‘see’ if it will work. The department heads have to make it work.”
Another proposal was to cut county employee’s wage step and cost of living increases, which they receive every year. That would have taken $133,833 from $393,853 tax increase. Finance Director Margie Sorenson told board members that with the new state budget, workers will be contributing more to their health and retirement funds, and will average $300 less in take home pay. “Our greatest asset is our employees, and for them to take a hit like this is terrible,” said Metropolus. But Board Supervisor Billy Fried disagreed. “I’m here to represent my constituents, not county employees.” The board voted that proposal down, however Gary Baier, Peter Wolk, Denny Thompson, Hoffman and Fried voted for the cut.
No department was exempt to the cutting process, and that included the Forestry Department. Baier proposed selling the county owned Townline Park, with a saving of $82,000 which included $70,000 to rehabilitate the aging facilities and $12,000 in upkeep. The board approved taking $70,000 out of that budget and putting it toward reducing the levy.
Another reducing measure was cutting mileage payments for not only county employees who drive on county business, but also for county board members. Currently they get paid the federal rate of $.55 per mile. Holewinski proposed reducing it to $.45 per mile, saving $25,000 per year. This cost reduction passed, but Jack Martinson, Rudolph and Young voted no to it.
Another motion Holewinski made was to reduce the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) position to half time position, and have it shared between Vilas and Oneida counties. “Well, I guess there are some people who believe that AIS are not a serious problem in this county,” Rudolph said sarcastically. “When the lakes here are choked with weeds, what kind of a tax base do you think we will have?” The board also voted down this proposal, keeping the position full-time. Those voting to cut the position included Sharon, Baier, Fried, Thompson and Holewinski.
The next department to take a hit was Planning and Zoning. The proposal was to not refill a permit specialist position, saving $62,852. Karl Jennrich is this department’s director, and he explained to the board that right now he may “get through,” but the real test would be during the summer months. “I may be flopping flat on my face by then, but I’m willing to try it,” he said. A zoning technician position cut was also approved, with a savings of $33,000.
Then the board decided to look at stumpage revenue. Unlike other departments with significant shortfalls such as $500,000 in state prisoner revenue, $100,000 less in county interest earnings and a steady decline in planning and zoning fees (from $686,212 in 2006 to $332,000 so far this year), stumpage revenue continues to grow steadily. In fact, so far this year the county has made $1,063,000 from harvesting timber within county-owned forest land. As a comparison, in 2006 the county made $541,085 from harvested timber sales.
Forestry Director John Bilogan told the board there was an account established many years ago that required 5 percent of stumpage sales to be retained. This money was to be used for purchasing land, and currently had $174,000 in it. By law, if the county takes land out of the forestry program, they have to purchase that same amount of acreage to stay in the program. “The county shouldn’t be in the business of buying land,” said Holewinski. “That just shrinks our tax base. There are stewardship funds available from the DNR if we should need to purchase land.”
The board voted to put $174,000 from that fund toward the levy reduction, in addition to an additional $70,000 that is projected from stumpage sales in 2012. That brought the tax levy amount to a negative $61,222. The majority of the board approved this measure, but Young and Rudolph voted no to it.
Then Fried asked since the $393,853 levy had been shaved away to a negative $61,222 if $10,000 couldn’t be put back into the budget to help maintain the police dispatch center in Minocqua. “It’s an investment in that corner of the county,” Fried reasoned. “This $10,000 will help with wages and fringe benefits for the dispatchers there.” The board voted yes to that proposal with Sharon, Baier, Fried, Hoffman, Wolk, Hintz, Vandervest, Holewinski and Martinson voting to restore that money to the budget.
With that the budget hearing closed, and the board continued their regular meeting. During that they:
• Approved writing off the outstanding check record in the amount of $2,308.97.
• Voted to sub-lease the Koinonia Residential Treatment Center to Options Counseling Services, LLC.
• Reduced a full-time deputy of deeds position to a 75 percent part-time position.
• Reclassified an account technician position in the forestry department to a lower paying step within the county’s pay scale.
• Renewed a community policing deputy sheriff position contingent on grant money that pays for the position.
• Approved the appointment of Freeman Bennett to the position of Oneida County Highway Commissioner on Dec. 30, after current commissioner Nick Sholtes retires.
• Voted to start the marketing and sale process of the former WPS building and the current Department on Aging facility, both of which are county owned.
• Voted to update mining agreements that were written in the 1990s that would allow for advance royalty payments if mining becomes a factor in Oneida County.