County board supports resolution to preserve funds for land conservation departments
The featured speaker at the monthly meeting of Oneida County’s board of supervisors held last Tuesday was Kyle Christianson, a legislative resource associate with the Wisconsin Counties Association. He was there to explain to board members how the Wisconsin state budget works and to give them an update on where budget money is spent within the state.
He opened his presentation by explaining to board members how the budget process operates in Wisconsin. “The relationship between state government and local governments in Wisconsin is unique nationally,” he said. “The majority of tax revenues here are collected by the state, while the services are performed locally. With local governments dependent on the state for revenue, state budget problems are often ‘passed on’ to locals. Counties are forced to provide state-mandated services without adequate state funding.”
Christianson admitted to board members that there were many components he didn’t know about in the 2013-2015 budget because it was slated to be introduced the day after the board meeting (Feb. 20); however, he presented facts and statistics on how budget money is gained and has been spent in the past. For instance, 25 percent of budgets for Wisconsin’s 72 counties come in the form of state aids. Close to 40 percent comes from taxes. The biggest expenditures for counties include close to 40 percent for health and human services, and 18 percent is spent on public safety.
Statistically, one of the biggest priorities for spending in the state budget is school aid. In 1999, 40 percent of budget spending went to schools and this number was virtually unchanged in the 2011 example Christianson cited. In 1999 10 percent was dedicated to shared revenue and that dropped to six percent in 2011. Funding Medicaid was 10 percent of the 1999 budget and that dropped to 6 percent in 2011. In the 1999 budget, 9 percent went for the UW system, while that was 8 percent in 2011.
One alarming statistic was the recent decline in locally shared revenues. From 2007 to 2009, the base payment to municipalities throughout Wisconsin remained unchanged at $157 million. It went down to $151 million in 2010 and 2011, and in 2012 it fell to $122 million. “County property tax controls tightened at the same time county shared revenue was reduced by 19 percent,” Christianson explained.
He also pointed out the 2013-2015 budget is the first one in more than 15 years that is proposed to come in balanced, and in fact realized a $125 million surplus. From 1997 to 2012, Wisconsin wavered in the red between 1.5 million and 2.5 million depending on the year. “That is simply not sustainable,” Christianson said.
Christianson explained the state is expecting $328 million coming in new revenues in 2014 and $511 million in new revenues for 2015. “All state agencies submitted budget requests on September 17 and across the board, there was about a 3 percent increase combined,” he said. “However, if all agency requests were fully funded, the state would need an additional $400 million in revenue above the 2013-2015 projection, not accounting for the 2013 surplus.”
Some other points Christianson touched on included the transportation budget being “paid back” by transferring .25 percent of general fund taxes to it and that Medicaid is becoming a larger piece of the budget pie. “One of the biggest problems the state budget is facing is that Medicaid is eating up the state surplus,” Christianson said. “It limits what can be given to local governments.”
And how the state’s money is spent was a contention with supervisor Jerry Shidell when a resolution offered by the Land Conservation and UW-Extension Committee was introduced to be passed at the meeting. That resolution requested that “the governor and all elected representatives in the Wisconsin state legislature return $9.3 million appropriation for state aid to counties, recognizing the invaluable service county conservation employees provide in helping Wisconsin farmers and growing our state’s agriculture industry.”
In addition to helping farmers implement programs on their land to preserve soil, county land conservation departments are also the delivery mechanism for administering programs that target such issues as non-point source pollution in places like Oneida County, where agriculture is not the focus.
For the last 12 years, $9.3 million has been appropriated for funding for these programs. A lot of the money is spent on funding staff positions and providing funds to create solutions to environmental problems. In the 2013-2015 state budget, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is proposing dropping funding to $7.8 million in 2014 and to $8 million in 2015. “The proposed cuts will therefore have a rippling negative impact on our county’s citizens and resources,” the resolution states.
The resolution would be sent to Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin legislators to preserve the $9.3 million allocated for this agency, but Shidell discouraged the board to vote for it. “I find it morally and unethical to have my tax money spent on this,” he said. “This money is used on problems that by law should be corrected by the landowner. It’s all about who’s got the most pull. They get the most money and that’s wrong.”
But Supervisor Bob Mott disagreed. “This is an excellent program and is necessary to protect lakes that support our economy,” he said.
And Tom Rudolph, who sits on the Land Conservation Committee, agreed. “We’re not asking for more money here,” he said. “We’re just asking that it be brought back to $9.3 million.”
The board voted to support the resolution but Shidell, Denny Thompson, Jack Martinson, Jack Sorensen and Scott Holewinski voted no.
In other business, the board:
• also approved spending $81,000 to implement a computer program throughout the county;
• approved $9,226.90 and $3,350.30 to be paid to Minocqua and Newbold, respectively, for replacement of culverts;
• denied an insurance claim for $2.6 million from Peter Stephens on the recommendation of corporate counsel. “This was from a traffic accident last March,” said Brian Desmond, corporate counsel. “We have been advised by our insurance company not to pay this and by denying it here, basically opens it up for a lawsuit and then a judge can decide.”