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County adopts stopgap for budget deficit

Douglas County has a tentative stopgap for a $1 million deficit it's facing next year.

The Executive Committee approved cutting $300,000 from the highway department's budget, increasing the transfer from its forestry department by $100,000, increasing sales tax projections by $100,000 and increasing the contribution employees pay for health insurance from 12 percent to 15 percent of the total cost.

Overall, the changes made Wednesday, Sept. 12, would close the gap by about $600,000 of the projected deficit in the 2019 budget.

"We were thinking if we at least came up with another $600,000 of the $1 million, and we may have to reconvene mid-year next year to discuss further options," Interim Administrator Ann Doucette said.

The cause of the projected deficit is institutional placements made through the Department of Health and Human Services, she said.

"For every youth we've had leave an institution, we've had another one that has gone back in," HHS Director Pat Schanen said. "And today, we have 15 kids that are in residential placements."

The cost for those residential placements ranges anywhere from $11,000 per month to $16,000 per month, depending on their needs, Schanen said.

"One of the problems is that the court orders these individuals to Winnebago or Mendota, and once it's there, it's out of local hands altogether," said Supervisor Larry Quam, chairman of the Health and Human Services Board. He said Douglas County isn't the only Wisconsin county facing the dilemma.

The issue is likely to result in a $1 million cost overrun in the department this year. It's an issue that is expected to persist in the coming year, creating the deficit in a budget would have balanced otherwise, Doucette said.

The county considered putting a referendum on the ballot that would have allowed the county to increase the levy by $1 million. However, the earliest election where that would have been possible is fall 2020, and if approved, wouldn't have been available until the 2021 budget year.

The committee also talked about creating a vehicle registration fee, commonly called a wheel tax.

Douglas County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said while nine or 10 other counties in Wisconsin have created a wheel tax, it was likely that doing so would be skirting the purpose of the law, which is to raise money for roads. He said the county would use the tax to reduce the levy for highways and use that money to offset the deficit.

Supervisor Nick Baker, chairman of the Infrastructure and Highway Committee, vehemently opposed the measure, noting there could be a time in the future where creating the unpopular tax would be necessary to address real issues with the county's highway system.

"Someday we may really need this, and it's gone," Baker said.

"This is going to affect the people that can least afford it," Supervisor Sue Hendrickson said. "I would much rather see us do a tax increase on everybody than have the people who can hardly put gas in their car — now they're going to have a tax increase."

Supervisor Keith Allen said many years ago when the county first considered creating a wheel tax, it was rejected because it is a regressive tax.

After stepping out of the room to talked to Highway Commissioner Jason Jackman, Baker returned to offer the $300,000 cut to the Highway Department's budget. The cut would decrease about a mile of reconstruction planned for County Highway F in 2019, but it would allow the department to retain $100,000 in proposed cuts for replacing highway equipment — just one of several options presented.

The county forestry contribution, which was $1.5 million this year, is climbing to $1.6 million next year.

Liebaert said markets have been a little stagnant: "Right now, we're doing good ... but some new problems could be on the horizon, like oak wilt has been found on the edge of the county."

He said he is confident that forestry can add $100,000 to its current contribution, but it will likely translate to less revenue for capital projects next year.

The committee weighed several measures affecting county employees including eliminating a planned 1 percent pay increase, increasing employee contributions to health insurance, eliminating a newly created child services position in human services and potentially reducing hours or cutting other support staff positions.

Schanen said department managers are "fairly maxed out" and are keeping the department functioning by carrying small case loads and doing intake services already, which is why she proposed creating four new positions — only one was approved.

"What comes from there comes to us," Clerk of Courts Michele Wick said. "My department right now is, we're at bare minimum, and we're barely keeping above water. It just keeps coming."

County Clerk Susan Sandvick said it is increasingly difficult for smaller departments to make cuts because of their size; she has two fewer employees in the six-person office she managed before state-imposed restrictions froze local tax levies.

Baker questioned tapping county reserves to address the county's projected deficit.

"I want to point out ... two years a row, they used reserves to reduce the levy and then the third year, they had to raise to raise the levy 52.1 percent because they got in a hole using reserves," Doucette said.

"We don't have the ability to raise the levy 52 percent anymore," Liebaert said.

The committee decided to increase employee contributions to health care instead of eliminating pay increases or reducing staff or staff hours.

One reserve fund the county may have to tap if revenue fails to meet projection is the sales tax reserve. Still, it was recommended and approved to increase that in the budget for 2019.

The recommendations will be included in the budget proposal that goes to the county's Administration Committee on Sept. 27.

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