By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Board has reviewed a proposed balanced budget for 2019 of $85.6 million, representing an increase of $5.1 million over the 2018 budget and which includes nearly $6 million in borrowing.
“In this budget, we are financing some of our bills that we would normally pay with levy or fund balance by long-term debt,” said David Bartlett of Boyceville, chair of the Dunn County Board, at the county board’s October 17 meeting.
The budget relies on multiple sources of funding, including alternative funding of just short of $6 million in borrowing, said Keith Strey, chief financial officer for Dunn County.
“The majority of (the proposed borrowing), over half of that, is for the Community Services Building remodeling. That is a long-term project,” Strey said.
About $1 million is earmarked to pay for repeater antennas for emergency communications as well as a records management system for emergency management and the sheriff’s budget, he said.
“Those two combined cover a large portion of the borrowing,” Strey said.
The tax levy for the 2019 budget is $21.6 million and is in compliance with levy limit law, he said.
“It is to the max of what we can levy,” Strey said.
The tax levy in the first round of developing the budget, which included a deficit of $4 million, was over $1 million in excess of the revenue limit, he said.
Increases in the 2019 budget include nearly $600,000 for emergency communications for a total budget of $1.99 million; an increase of about $600,000 for the sheriff’s department for a total budget of $7.25 million; an additional $2 million for human services for a total budget of $12.8 million; another $2 million for facilities and parks for a total budget of $5.3 million; about $300,000 more for the transit commission for a total budget of $913,000; and a $700,000 increase for health insurance for a total budget of $8.7 million.
The highway department budget of $12.2 million, representing an increase of about $100,000, uses $1.5 million of highway department fund balance, which is an increase of about $900,000 over the highway department fund balance used in the 2018 budget, Strey noted.
The amounts of highway department fund balance for 2018 and 2019 were both less, however, than the highway department fund balance used in 2017 of $2.1 million, he said.
“We feel confident (the use of highway department fund balance) is within a reasonable range of accounting standards,” Strey said.
Mike Kneer, county board supervisor from Menomonie, pointed out that auditors recommend the amount of money in the general fund should stay within a certain percentage of expenditures.
The recommendation is to retain 35 percent in the general fund balance, Strey said.
How much of the general fund balance is applied to the 2019 budget? Kneer asked.
“Zero. No general fund balance is applied,” Strey said, adding that the 2018 budget used about $1.1 million of the general fund balance.
“Could we have taken some from general fund and kept it at thirty-five percent?” Kneer asked.
“No,” Strey replied.
Kneer also asked Strey to talk about this year’s deficit of $1 million in the human services budget.
Human services had a deficit of $1.1 million in 2018, and as a result, there has been some factoring into the 2019 budget, Strey said.
The deficit is tied to the opioid crisis and problems with other drug addiction “creating a growing demand for services in that area for placement and for mental health,” Strey said.
“That has had a huge spike in cost to the county, and they are mandated services from the county. It’s one of those things that has to happen. We couldn’t just ignore that,” he said.
The human services deficit in 2018 took away any ability to use money from the general fund balance for the 2019 budget, he said.
A fiscally conservative and prudent health and human services budget for 2019 was increased by $1.1 million “to reflect that trend” of an increased need for placement services in treatment facilities for drug abuse and mental health services, Strey said.
In 2018, the human services budget was $10 million, and in 2019, the human services budget is $12 million, he said.
“That reflects the original budget adopted was a million short and then factoring on another million,” Strey said.
“You cannot ignore a significant change like that,” he said.
Kneer asked if Dunn County receives partial reimbursement from the state for the mandated services.
“Correct,” Strey said.
“Are there any indications the counties will get more money back from the state?” Kneer asked.
“No,” said Miller, the county manager.
“We can’t count on the state giving us any more. The Wisconsin Counties Association, and other professional associations, are making a large ask of the state legislature to the tune of $30 million dollars (because) counties have been picking up more of the cost,” Miller said.
“What’s driving it is the endangered children. When we get a call, and the responders come to a household and find children they feel are endangered by the situation, by the use of methamphetamine or domestic disturbances, we have an obligation to place them,” Miller said.
“The cost of placing those endangered children is spiraling. And the numbers (are increasing). We’ve had over a one hundred percent increase over the past four years,” he said.
“Ditto for mental health. Again, when we get a call, and someone appears to be suffering from mental illness, we have a mandate to provide mental health services to them, including placement, and those costs are going up and up,” Miller said.
“The state, to date, has deferred those (costs of protecting endangered children and providing mental health services) to the counties, and the counties are drowning as a result,” he said.
And to add to the problem of increasing expenses, the state’s levy limit law “is strangling local governments,” Miller said.
The levy limit allows the addition to the tax levy of net new construction, he said.
“What it ignores is the increasing costs of providing services to the existing residents. That (part of the levy) remains flat. The costs do not,” Miller said.
Miller said he would advocate for changing the levy limit law to allow municipalities to keep pace with the cost of the providing services counties are mandated by the state to provide.
Counties that cannot cover costs very well have to cut in other areas, such as parks and recreation, to meet basic needs, said Carl Vandermeulen, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
Cutting parks and recreation budgets exacerbates the differences between counties with more money and the counties with less money, he said.
Wealthier counties have more parks and recreation that in turn attract more people to live there, which helps economic development in the county, Vandermeulen said.
“I’m surprised there is not a movement among counties to sue the state legislature on the basis of inequality. It’s discriminatory,” he said, adding he wanted to remind his colleagues there is an election coming up and perhaps a new state government would make a difference.