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St. Croix County Public Safety Referendum will appear on April 4 ballot

by Mike R. Bondarenko

Saint Croix County voters will cast ballots in a first-ever public safety referendum on April 4.

Referendum passage would override the state property tax levy limit and authorize a $3.5 million ongoing county property tax increase to fund 24 new criminal justice system positions beginning with the 2024 county fiscal year. The levy limit does not allow funding for the additional positions.

The referendum has been approved by the County Board Public Protection and Judiciary Committee and the full County Board. It marks the first time the county has asked voters to exceed the state-imposed levy limit enacted by the legislature in 2005 for public safety. State law provides that the county cannot exceed the levy limit without voter approval.

The estimated county property tax levy limit for 2024 is $44.3 million. Referendum passage would exceed that limit by nearly 8 percent to fund the public safety personnel spending increase, according to county officials. The ongoing annual cost of the new positions is about $3.5 million more than the estimated levy limit would allow.

The 24 positions are an additional eight sheriff’s deputies, four correction deputies, three investigators (two in the Sheriff’s Office and one in the District Attorney’s Office), two pre-trial case managers, two support staff (one in justice services and one in the District Attorney’s Office), two deputy clerks of court, an attorney within the Corporation Counsel’s Office to handle Children in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) cases and two co-responders in the Human Services Department to go on-scene during specific cases. The new positions would be funded in the 2024 county budget.

St. Croix County population has increased by 19 percent since 2006. Calls for service to the Sheriff’s Office have increased by 25 percent during this time. Deputies are responding to over 20,000 more calls for service as compared to 2006. However, staffing levels have remained the same despite the increased workload. The county has had the same number of patrol deputies who provide initial response to calls for service since 2007.

The District Attorney’s Office has had a 54 percent increase in felony cases since 2006. The additional support staff and transfer of CHIPS juvenile cases to the Corporation Counsel’s Office will help state-funded assistant district attorneys focus on felony level criminal cases.

“St. Croix County has identified a need for additional public safety personnel. As one of the fastest-growing counties in Wisconsin, our staffing has not kept pace with the demands for service,” Administrative Coordinator Ken Witt told county supervisors.

According to county officials, “Our public safety staff have gone above and beyond to address the increasing needs of our county. They have adapted to address these needs by working smarter, creating efficiencies, collaborating with stakeholders and community members, utilizing special funding sources, and prioritizing what type of service without additional personnel.

“As the population has grown and the need for services has increased, the county has had to choose between what the community wants and what the budget provides. After many years of finding creative ways to bridge this ever-widening gap, we have fallen far behind on the demand for services in public safety.”

The referendum question on the ballot is: “Under state law, the increase in the levy for St. Croix County for the tax to be imposed for the next fiscal year, 2024, is limited to 2 percent, based on St. Croix County’s best estimate, which results in a levy of $44,319,159. Shall St. Croix County be allowed to exceed this limit and increase the levy for the next fiscal year, 2024, for the purpose of Public Safety, by a total of 7.98 percent, which results in a levy of $47,855,666, and on an ongoing basis, include the increase of $3,536,507 each fiscal year going forward?”

A yes vote for the referendum means the voter supports an increase in the property tax levy for funding additional county public safety personnel.

A no vote for the referendum means the voter does not support an increase in the property tax levy for additional public safety personnel.

County officials said passage of the referendum would mean an additional $24.97 in property taxes per $100,000 of equalized value in 2024.

“It is important to note that this does not factor in growth in our county. We are currently the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin. As our population grows and more people are paying taxes, the cost is spread out,” officials said.

“Our property taxes are determined by the county’s mill rate. The mill rate for St. Croix County has decreased every year since 2013. This expansion will raise the mill rate to near the level we were at in 2020, then should decrease the following years.”

The county share of the average property tax bill is less than 20 percent. This represents the cost for all county services, including 9-1-1 emergency dispatch, law enforcement,  and the court system.

St. Croix County will host two open houses on the Public Safety Referendum, March 14 and March 30, from 4 to 7 pm at the Government Center, 1101 Carmichael Road, Hudson. The public is welcome to attend, learn more about the referendum and ask questions of county staff.

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