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September 24, 2019

8/7/2019 4:45:00 PM
Proposed cuts for tourism council, OCEDC, county fair take a step forward
No reductions recommended for airport, North Central Regional Planning, Tri-County Council

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

The Oneida County administration committee assessed this week a number of recommendations from its funding opportunities committee, approving recommendations for four significant funding cuts, at least as a starting point for budget deliberations.

However, supervisors stressed that the approved motion was by no means a final decision - there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing about how the vote to approve the recommendations would be perceived - but merely a plan by which the county will proceed as it approaches fall budget hearings and continues to study ways to increase revenues or cut spending.

In other words, the amounts are likely to change, and in some cases no cuts at all could be exacted. What's more, all entities that might be subject to funding cuts - not just those voted on this week but others such as the UW-Extension - will be invited and expected to respond to any recommended cuts, as will the committees of jurisdiction of those entities that have them.

Under the plan approved Monday, the county would reduce funding to both the tourism council and the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation (OCEDC) by $25,000 each, and would completely eliminate county funding for the fair, which is currently $16,000 a year.

The Humane Society would lose half of its county funding, but at least part of that would be offset by increased license fees, as well as fees that now go to towns going to the Humane Society.

The administration committee did not take any votes regarding the UW-Extension this week, but it did agree with the funding committee's recommendation to sustain current funding levels for the North Central Regional Planning Commission, the Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport.

The committee was reviewing recommendations from the county's special funding opportunities committee, which was established primarily to try and find revenues or spending reductions totaling about $800,000 a year to fund wage increases for county employees, which is what is needed to make the county competitive in employee hiring, according to a study by the firm Carlson Dettmann.

Since its inception, though, the funding opportunities committee's scope has embraced a larger mission to find as many operating efficiencies and to identify as many revenue opportunities as possible.

The administration committee addressed only those recommendations assigned to it by the funding opportunities committee. A much larger list of conceptual ideas has been sent to other county committees for review, such as the labor relations, public works, and zoning committees.

The entire list of conceptual ideas flowing to various committees - those with recommendations and many with no recommendations attached - have also been vetted by subunits of the funding opportunities committee, as a way to, in the words of administration committee and funding opportunities committee chairman Dave Hintz, "further understand and progress these ideas."

"These are all conceptual ideas at this point, and things that should be considered," Hintz said. "They are not items that we say we are absolutely going to do it this way, but they are ideas that should be progressed and debated."

The plan

Much of the conversation this week centered on the recommendations to reduce funding for the tourism council, the fair, and the OCEDC.

"These are items that over the past few years we have scrutinized in the budget process, and we will again," supervisor Billy Fried, who is also on the funding opportunities committee, said.

Fried said there were various reasons the recommendations were made.

"With the tourism council, we believe there's a continuing appropriation that they have available that could help fill the void of the $25,000 that's being recommended to reduce," he said.

As for the fair, the plan has long been for the fair to fund itself, Fried said.

"It's always been my understanding that the fair would be self-sufficient, and we've had those discussions at budget time, so the recommendation is to stop that funding," he said.

Hintz said the OCEDC has what he calls a significant reserve.

"When they do their budget and make their request, I want them to consider using a portion of the reserve to fund the organization," he said.

Another recommendation was to cut funding for the Humane Society by $20,000 - about half - but supervisors said there were special factors in play.

"That is a sensitive one, but the county has worked to develop a strategy to allow them to fill the void of any direct funding from the county," Fried said. "That's going to be a discussion with them to see what can be done to accelerate and get more licensing of dogs, which would help fill the void and would save us money that could go elsewhere in the budget. The county is still committed to supporting the Humane Society, we just want to get that revenue-generating going."

Hintz added that dog licensing fees will be increasing in 2020 and Hintz said that money would generally go to the Humane Society after subtracting costs of dog tags and other expenses.

Finance director Darcy Smith added that some fees that now go to towns will go directly to the Humane Society.

As of May 31, Smith said, there's about $8,300 that will go to the Humane Society instead of being disbursed to towns, so that would offset at least some of the direct-funding cuts.

Supervisor Robb Jensen said he had questions for the organizations.

For the Humane Society, he said, they have been given a revenue opportunity and they should be working hard to increase the number of dog licenses.

"One of the things I'd like to know is, what are they experiencing in terms of increases," Jensen said. "We've given them a great revenue source but are they working hard at that revenue source?"

As for tourism, Jensen said every year Oneida County tourism opts not to provide advertising in its brochure.

"I would like to know why they are not looking at advertising, and, if they did advertise in their brochure, how could that help them?" he said.

Jensen said the question for the fair was, did they increase their revenues? Are they to a point where they can be self-sufficient?

All of those questions and more should be answered in those organizations' fall budget presentations, Hintz said.

Jensen said the recommended levels were a starting point. The fair, for example, may say they can't do with the funding cut, he said, and the fair committee and the administration committee might agree or disagree, and the entities would come to a final resolution.

"What I'm trying to do is develop questions to send back to these particular groups to justify their current funding or explain why they can't have a reduction," he said. "What we're doing is a mini-budget hearing. We're justifying the 2020 budget, we're just doing it earlier than before."

Supervisor Bob Mott wondered how the committee could vote to recommend specific budget cuts without that information from the groups.

Jensen stressed it was a suggestion, and supervisor Ted Cushing said it was a necessary starting plan.

"We're never going to get anywhere unless we say, 'OK, we're agreeing with all this at this point and let somebody prove us wrong," he said.

Cushing then made a motion to approve the recommended reductions for the OCEDC, fair, tourism council, and Humane Society, with the understanding that the groups will get their opportunity to justify their funding.

During discussion, Mott asked why the committee was voting now if it would again later during the budget hearings.

"Because we need a plan to proceed," Hintz replied.

Cushing amplified.

"How are we going to have a plan to see where we can afford pay increases unless we sit down and do this?" he said. "This is going to force us to maybe become more efficient 10 years from now, or five years from now."

Mott was assured that each group would receive the recommendations and would have ample opportunity to say why those cuts were or were not justified.

"What I want to make clear is that we are suggesting this," Jensen said. "We are not saying that it's happening. Granted, some people are going to hear this and say, 'You just cut tourism by $25,000.' No, we're not. We're looking for revenue, so were saying come back and justify it."

Mott said he was OK with the procedure so long as the groups received the recommendations and understood that they have to put together arguments why the recommendation should or should not be.

The recommendations would also be referred to the specific committees of jurisdiction.

During the meeting, the committee also decided to put new taxes, such as a wheel tax, on the back-burner. The committee also discussed potential alternative implementations of Carlson Dettmann, such as a 50-percent initial implementation instead of full implementation.

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