In a day-long meeting full of dramatic twists and turns, the Oneida County Board of Supervisors adopted a 2020 budget Tuesday that drops the tax rate for county residents and only minimally raises total property tax collections.
But the final levy numbers weren't close to being the major story. In a stunning development, supervisors failed to find enough votes to borrow any money for capital improvement projects (CIP), forcing them to take about $4 million from the general fund for absolutely critical infrastructure projects and to plan for another meeting to consider how to approach the remainder of the 2020 proposed list of projects, whose budgeting needs totaled $6.3 million heading into the county board meeting.
That latter discussion will come at a special December board meeting or at the regularly scheduled January board meeting. Supervisors could decide to pare the list and/or defer some projects, or they could amend the budget and borrow money then, either bonding for the remaining projects or even reversing this week's actions.
Whatever they do, county board chairman Dave Hintz told supervisors he didn't think just taking $4 million from the general fund was enough.
"I think there will be additional monies spent on CIP," Hintz said. "That's my forecast. Maybe we'll figure we only need $3.5 million, but I want to be straightforward with you. I think we'll need more than $4 million."
In another drama, the UW Extension, a target by critics for many years, survived for another year, but the vote was the closest the Extension had ever come to being booted from the county. Ending the Extension would have saved the county about $183,000 in tax levy.
The vote was 8-7, with six supervisors missing. The meeting began with two supervisors absent, but the board suffered attrition through the day as the meeting stretched on from morning until late afternoon.
In yet another drama, supervisors voted to keep the county's Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) as a separate stand-alone entity after pushback from local citizens.
In a late budget move to potentially save money, the administration committee had proposed a possible merger of the ADRC with the county's social services department, which officials estimated would save the county $130,000.
In the draft budget proposed to the county board, the administration committee had slashed the ADRC budget by $68,000 (in addition to a $62,000 cut proposed by the ADRC itself, a savings based on the elimination of a position through attrition), but had kept the money in the contingency account for transfer back to ADRC if the merger did not occur.
The very idea of a merger did not sit well with many advocates for the elderly, however, and they expressed their dismay at the county budget hearing. In the end, the $68,000 was shifted back to the ADRC budget and the entity will remain a stand-alone agency for now, though reorganization discussion can proceed. That story will be reviewed in detail in a later article.
The actual vote for the 2020 tax levy was anti-climactic by comparison. The final tax levy will be $16,887,490, up from this year's levy of $16,646,281, or up by $241,209, or 1.4 percent.
That's $150,000 higher than the proposed budget tax increase of about $91,209. Supervisors realized that more county bridge aid was needed, and so they added $150,000 to the levy for those aids.
They could do so because the bridge aid category is exempt from levy limits (which the county had already maxed out). The bridge aid money will go to towns for bridge repair, most of which is culvert replacement.
As for the tax rate, that will actually drop from this year's $2.42 per $1,000 equalized value to $2.35 per $1,000 equalized value, a drop of seven cents, or 2.9 percent.
The tax rate could drop while overall tax collections will rise because the county's overall equalized value rose by about $291,0000, or 4.2 percent.
No borrowing for you
Coming into the budget hearing, the administration had proposed funding about $6.3 million in 2020 capital improvement project needs for 14 projects (13 needing additional county funding) by borrowing $4 million and tapping the general fund for the rest - about $2.33 million.
The biggest project was a $3.5 million project to replace existing public safety radio infrastructure located at each tower site and the E911 Center/Minocqua dispatch. The public safety radio system was installed in 2008, runs continuously 24 hours a day every day of the year, and has reached "end of life" stage.
It is universally acknowledged that the project was unavoidable and immediately needed, and could not be done in stages.
Other needed projects including mobile radios for sheriff's department squad cars, a body scanner for the jail, new Tasers, and $710,000 for county highway reconstruction.
No one questioned the need for the projects, but right away some supervisors did question the resolution before it, directing the county to borrow up to $4 million for the capital improvement projects.
Any opposition was problematic because the resolution needed a supermajority of three-quarters of the total board, or 16 votes, to pass the resolution. Complicating the matter for supporters of the resolution was that three members were absent during the discussion and the vote. Practically speaking, those essentially counted as 'no' votes, meaning supporters could lose only two votes of those present to pass the authorization.
It was a topsy-turvy road to the final vote. Initially, supervisor Steve Schreier attempted to tamp down resistance by offering an amendment that would lower the amount to be borrowed to a maximum of $3 million.
"I sense that this is a bitter pill for a significant number of people to swallow, and I also feel that making it a smaller amount is easier to swallow," Schreier said.
Supervisor Robb Jensen, a vocal supporter of borrowing up to $4 million, urged supervisors to stay at that higher number.
Jensen observed that, under the proposed budget plan, by borrowing $4 million and using $2.3 million from the general fund, the remaining general fund balance would be about $1.22 million after spending $2.6 for planned CIP projects in 2021 and spending $1 million for 2020 CIP projects pushed to 2021.
However, Jensen said, if the county could only borrow $3 million, that would push $1 million more to the general fund, leaving that fund at only about $222,000 after 2021 CIP expenditures. He urged supervisors to look not just at 2020 but at those upcoming capital needs for 2021.
"And that's assuming that those projects identified for 2021 stay at that number," he said. "This year we went to a big increase because all of a sudden we found other infrastructure needs. What we are trying to do is not have this discussion about borrowing a year from now. You're going to kick the can down the road and pay more. It's a two-year impact, not a one-year impact."
Nonetheless, Schreier's amendment passed. But then, on the vote on the amended resolution itself, supporters of the resolution to borrow up to $3 million could muster only 13 votes, with three absent supervisors and five 'no' votes, including Jensen.
That, of course, meant the county was not authorized to borrow any money, and it led to a quick motion by Jensen to reconsider when he realized the implications of the outcome. A motion to reconsider must come from the prevailing side.
The vote to reconsider passed but the amended resolution still needed to be passed with a supermajority, and, with three members still absent, that was still in trouble from the start.
Throughout the discussions, supporters stressed that any vote to borrow money was not a final plan - the amount of the loan, the terms of the loan, the interest rate, precisely what the money was being borrowed for - would have to come back to the county board for a final vote.
"We'd have to come back with a proposal...." Hintz said during discussion of the original resolution to borrow up to $4 million. "These are our plans, and this is what we currently budgeted for. But that number could not go up, it certainly could go down."
Jensen also emphasized that any actual borrowing would have to come back to the county board.
"Let's say we approve this resolution and we approve the budget, that still doesn't mean that everyone can go out and implement these plans because we have to approve how we are going to spend the $4 million," he said. "So we may say we can go up to $4 million but there still may be further discussion and say, 'Well, I don't really know if we should do this or this or that.' We can still have that discussion."
But later, during discussion on the motion to borrow up to $3 million, Jensen appeared to undercut his own argument by saying more than $3 million would indeed have to be spent.
"If we go to $3 million and that passes, do we have to find a million dollars in revenues or reduce expenditures or a combination of those to balance the budget for 2020, and what will be the impact in 2021 if we keep it at $3 million?" he asked. "My concern is that, by going to $3 million, and we look at the projects ..., now you are opening the floodgates. These projects went through committees of jurisdiction. We need these projects. We are going to need those projects in 2021. We are kicking the can down the road at $3 million."
The bottom line is, Jensen said later in the discussion, he didn't believe, looking at the capital improvement needs for 2020 and 2021, that $3 million was adequate: "I don't see how $3 million is going to do it."
Sorensen, who was a strong opponent of all the borrowing resolutions, referred to Jensen's comments.
"The only point I'd like to make is to reflect on Mr. Jensen's discussion," Sorensen said during the original debate over borrowing up to $4 million. "If we approve $4 million, we will spend $4 million."
Supervisor Mitch Ives said there was money in the general fund because an amount equaling three-and-a-half months of operating expenses - what Hintz called the county's rainy day fund and an amount that auditors suggest to have - was not included in those general fund numbers.
And, Ives pointed out, the county has never touched that reserve.
"That's cash that we have," he said.
At one point, supervisor Bill Liebert expressed his reluctance to borrow, perhaps foreshadowing his final vote.
"I look at the issue from the standpoint that what we're charged with is to provide public health and public safety," Liebert said. "Everything beyond that should be looked at wholeheartedly from a different perspective and although we are faced with these very challenging decisions, I do have a hard time with the idea that, if there is money in an account, that you're going to borrow. I see the logic but what I'm sensing is that we might be looking to borrow more than we really should at this point."
Supervisor Scott Holewinski said he was not against the capital improvement projects but the level of borrowing at $4 million. He noted that there would ultimately be an impact to the levy by borrowing and he was more comfortable with the smaller amount of $3 million.
In the end, supporters of borrowing could still not muster 16 voters, even with a lower figure of borrowing up to $3 million.
Three members were absent, Sorensen and supervisor Greg Oettinger, who had voted against borrowing $3 million earlier, maintained their votes and were joined by Liebert, which doomed the reconsidered resolution.
Supervisors then approved the use of $4 million from the general fund to pay for the law enforcement radio project as well as mobile radios for sheriff's squad cars and an ongoing real property software upgrade.
It should be noted that the original proposed budget would have tapped the general fund for $2.33 million in addition to the borrowing. So Tuesday's county board action would hit the general fund for approximately $1.7 million more, not $4 million more, leaving $2.3 million in proposed CIP projects unfunded until the county board convenes again.
In another budget drama, the UW Extension survived what was unexpectedly its closest test yet, making it into the new year on an 8-7 vote, though six supervisors were absent at the time. During discussions, familiar arguments about the UW Extension were heard.
Both supervisors Bob Mott and Alan VanRaalte made extensive arguments for keeping the program, citing community support and a long list of what they called valuable services, including such things as Teen Court, 4-H, and FoodWise, a federally funded program that serves Wisconsin residents with limited incomes.
On the other side, supervisor Billy Fried said he understood the value of the programs but said the issue was not about value but what the county could afford. He reiterated his previous positions that the program is non-mandated and consistently ranks low in priorities on county efficiency studies.
Holewinski, who made the motion to cut the Extension from the budget, said the county never cuts anything.
"So we've done everything to add to the budget and no cuts," Holewinski said.
Holewinski said the county was applying money unwisely from the general fund to fund operating expenditures, yet refusing to cut non-mandated and low-priority programs.
"When I look at the budget, I see we are taking $376,000 for operating expenses, which I think is a bad idea," he said. "We should not be using the general fund that way. You can see that we need it for capital outlay projects. The only we can get that budget down is to eliminate some programs."
Holewinski said that, in the 2015 county efficiency study, the UW Extension was in the bottom third, and in the 2016 study all of their programs were in the bottom quarter. A finding from a funding opportunities study team confirmed that the UW Extension was the lowest ranked program in the county's efficiency study, with all programs ranked 146 and below in importance.
"I look at the budget and I say, 'what can we cut?'" Holewinski said. "There's hardly anything we can cut to come up with a big number. So I think this budget we should eliminate."
He didn't get what he wanted, but the vote was as close as UW Extension opponents have come.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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