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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A referendum question asking Dunn County residents to approve exceeding the state-imposed limits for the property tax levy could be on the ballot in November of 2020.
Paul Miller, county manager, spoke about the possibility of including a referendum question to increase the tax levy in next year’s fall election at the Dunn County Board’s January 17 meeting.
The increase in the tax levy beyond what the revenue limits allow would help make up for shortfalls in the county’s budget, Miller said.
For the past several budget cycles, county officials have struggled to balance the county’s budget.
The amount of property taxes the county is allowed to levy is based on the equalized value of property in the county. The amount of increase allowed each year under state law is based on net new construction.
The problem is that Dunn County’s allowed increase is low every year because there is not much new construction going on in the county, while at the same time, the cost of providing services to county residents is always increasing, Miller said.
One example of the increased cost of services occurred in the 2019 budget.
In 2018, the department of human services had a budget deficit of $1 million related to the opioid crises and to providing child protective services to children taken out of homes where there were drugs, such as methamphetamine, or where there was a domestic abuse situation. The deficit also was linked to providing certain mental health services for county residents. The cost for someone to stay at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, for example, is $1,000 per day.
The 2019 budget for human services was increased by $2 million to pay for the deficit in 2018 as well as to provide money to cover those services in 2019.
The procedure for holding a referendum to exceed the levy limit requires the Dunn County Board to approve a resolution, and then the resolution must be approved by voters as a referendum, Miller said.
Exceeding the revenue limit can be done on a one-time basis in the next fiscal year, or it can be on an ongoing, continuing basis, he said.
Different rules exist in state law for holding a referendum in an even-numbered year or in an odd-numbered year.
Because of the county’s budget cycle and the requirements for the county board to pass a resolution and to publish the proper notifications for holding a referendum, the most feasible time to have a referendum would be in November of 2020, Miller said.
Municipalities do not know what the allowable levy limit will be until the numbers for equalized value are available from the state in August, Miller said.
State law requires the county board to approve the resolution for a referendum 70 days before the election when the referendum will be held, he said.
The county board would have to hold a special meeting in August to pass the resolution for the ballot in November. In order to pass a resolution, the county board would have to know what the budget would be for 2021, but the county board does not approve the next year’s budget until after the fall election in November, Miller explained.
Two budgets would have to be prepared, one based on the allowable levy limit, and one based on an increase in the tax levy if approved by voters. The two budgets would have to be completed in time for the county board to approve the resolution 70 days before the election, he said.
Budget summaries for both budgets would have to be published before the budget hearing, and then when the county board holds the budget hearing and approves the budget after the November election, then the board would have to approve the budget that reflects the outcome of the referendum, Miller explained.
State law requires budget summaries for municipalities to be published in a newspaper a certain number of days before the budget meeting.
The ballot question is required to have the percentage of the increase in tax levy allowed by state law
and the amount of the tax that would be levied on county residents, as well as the percentage of increase being asked for in the referendum question and the amount of the tax levy with the increase added in.
As for the referendum question, “you cannot put it on the ballot and hope it is approved,” Miller said.
To successfully pass a referendum allowing the county to exceed the levy limits, the county board would need an information campaign to explain the referendum to the public well ahead of the election, he said.
The information must be available to the public if there is going to be any chance at prevailing, Miller said.
The issue of a referendum is complex, and whether a referendum to exceed the levy limits makes sense for Dunn County would have to be discussed by the county board at length, he said.
The Dunn County Board will be meeting for a budget priorities workshop on February 2.
The workshop will not be a cost-cutting discussion, but rather, a discussion about services and programs and how they should be prioritized, Miller said.
County board members will be asked to prioritize items with a designation of 1, 2 or 3, with 1 being the highest priority, he said.
“Nothing the county does is unimportant,” Miller noted.
But the priority exercise will give direction to county staff from the county board to figure out where to focus potential cuts to programs and services if funds are not available in the 2020 budget, he said.