Walworth County Government Today: Budget planning in progress

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Dave Bretl, Walworth County administrator | September 11, 2017

I have no reason to complain about my Labor Day holiday this year; although in the past, I usually have. Each year, shortly after the long weekend, I release my proposed annual budget to the county board. I include a detailed letter along with this budget, which is called the administrator's budget, explaining what all of the numbers mean.

For many years, I was either putting the finishing touches on the letter or starting it from scratch at about three o'clock on Tuesday morning. Although they were always good sports about it, I was about as popular as rain among the workers tasked with editing the letter and integrating it into the large informational packet that is provided to our board members. It was not uncommon for pages to be removed and replaced from newly stapled packets because of some error I had made. Administrative assistants Kate Willett and Nicole Hill, who are responsible for getting the final product in the hands of our board members, suffered the most. It was not unusual to see them clearing jammed copy machines and changing toner cartridges minutes before our meeting convened. This year our board meeting was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Given the time that it takes to type and collate the document, even a procrastinator like myself had to concede that the letter needed to be completed before the weekend, which it was. As a result, the last week of August was a busy one, but the payoff was having a long weekend off without a major project hanging over my head.

My annual budget letter is centered around themes that shaped the spending plan. An important one this year is the state-mandated levy caps under which we operate. I wrote about this in my last column. The ability of the county to raise taxes is limited, in general, by the value of new construction that is added to tax rolls during the previous year. In the case of Walworth County, this figure was 1.14 percent. There is a fair amount of misunderstanding among taxpayers about this. While some folks are pleased with a zero-growth or no-growth budget, others become concerned that a service is being cut or a program that they value is not being provided more funding. After explaining the budget caps, they sometimes suggest raising the sales tax by a penny. This too is not allowed under state law. Counties may elect to enact a one-half cent sales tax. Our county was one of the first in Wisconsin to do so about thirty years ago. No additional increase in the sales tax is permitted.

Another factor that shaped the spending plan is debt or, more precisely, the lack of debt. The budget that I am forwarding to the board provides for paying off the last of our bonds in 2018. These were issued to finance the construction of the Lakeland School building and for highway projects in 2011. 2011 marked the last year that we borrowed money for anything and we have been aggressively pre-paying or “calling” bonds since. While the county will probably need to borrow money in the future, no borrowing is planned through 2022. Paying off our “mortgage” early will relieve taxpayers from making hundreds of thousands of dollars of interest payments in the future.

Replacement of our Health and Human Services (HHS) building is another factor shaping the budget. Construction of this $24.1 million facility is slated to begin next year. We will not need to borrow any money to pay for this project. Given its cost and complexity, however, this project will demand a significant portion of our capital budget as well as staff time. It is important to note, however, that despite the size of this project, we will not be deferring road or bridge reconstruction or building maintenance; in fact, our efforts in this regard continue to improve.  This year we completed a detailed survey of the hundreds of thousands of square feet of roofs that cover county facilities. This plan will allow us to plan for the maintenance and replacement of these roofs in future budgets. Our public works director Eric Nitschke completed detailed ten-year plans for major equipment replacement as well as future renovations or repairs of our public works buildings.

The release of my budget letter marks a midpoint and an important element in the budget process. Prior to September 5, our county's budget planning was centered on staff. Eight separate milestones were completed in a process that began on May 1 and culminated in a weeklong series of meetings that I held with each department head and elected official in late August. From here, the county board will take over. I conducted the budget workshop on September 5. During the second week in September, the board can modify the spending plan through an appeal process. Our finance committee hears these appeals and is slated to pass the preliminary budget on September 14. That budget will be the subject of a public hearing on October 30. Supervisors are provided with an additional opportunity to amend the budget after that hearing. If everything goes according to schedule, our 2018 budget should be in place by November 6.

You can follow the budget process by attending our meetings or checking out the county's website at www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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