County board votes to lower property taxes
In a marathon seven-hour meeting Nov. 5, the St. Croix County Board adopted a 2014 property tax levy that should mean a slight reduction in taxes for individual property owners.
Although several amendments were proposed and each discussed at length, only one amendment was adopted. The final budget amount and tax levy stayed as proposed by County Administrator Patrick Thompson. The new tax rate of $3.99 per $1,000 of property value compares to a 2013 rate of $4.09.
The lone successful amendment, proposed by Hudson Supervisor Clarence “Buck” Malick, takes roughly $40,000 from county sales tax revenues to pay the River Falls, Somerset and Roberts public libraries the money they were expecting to receive from the Hudson Area Joint Library.
The board rejected a proposal to add a new assistant district attorney, but the new position of coordinator for the Community Justice Collaborating Council survived proposals to cut or eliminate county funding.
A proposal to divert the money collected through the county’s motor vehicle registration fee with the intent apparently of trying to rescind the fee failed. The issue was referred to the Transportation Committee for quick consideration.
2014 Budget at a glance
--$67.7 million in expenses. The 2013 budget was $68 million
--A county property tax levy of $28 million
--A levy increase of 1.06 percent
--A levy that is $830,656 less than allowed under state law
--A new mill rate of $3.99 compared to a 2013 mill rate of $4.09
--Four new jobs
--No automatic wage increases
--A General Fund unassigned balance of 40 percent (The usual policy is 25 to 30 percent.)
The county levies a tax on municipalities that don’t have their own libraries and divides that money among city and village libraries to help cover their costs of providing services to rural residents.
When Hudson, North Hudson and the Town of Hudson received County Board approval to withdraw from the county system, it was with the understanding that the new joint library would reimburse other libraries for the cost of rural circulation, Malick said.
That agreement, he said, was important to County Board members who approved the plan. Now for the first time since 2002, the Hudson library, which is struggling financially, has sent notice that it will not make the payments in 2014.
These are the amounts the libraries were expecting and that the county will pay this year: River Falls, $24,435; Somerset, $9,736; and Roberts, $5,301.
While the City Council is “disappointed” that the Hudson library will not honor the agreement, River Falls doesn’t plan to take legal action, said City Administrator Scot Simpson.
“We’re hesitant to make a mountain out of a molehill, and we’re reluctant to drag the County Board into it,” Simpson said. He asked the board to keep an eye on the situation and be mindful of the network of library services.
The motion adopted last week also asks the county’s attorney to determine if the board can require the Hudson library to reimburse the $40,000 or the county can rescind its approval for the joint library.
The County Board adopted the joint library resolution with very specific requirements and the joint library reneged on the agreement, said New Richmond Supervisor Ron Kiesler.
Other supervisors argued that the problem is between the libraries and is no longer the county’s concern.
Malick’s motion was adopted on a vote of 11-6.
Despite an emotional plea from Greg Berg, whose 20-year-old daughter Ellie died from a heroin overdose this fall, the board rejected a proposal to add a new assistant district attorney.
DA Eric Johnson asked for an ADA to specialize in handling drug cases. The position was expected to cost $49,500 a year plus benefits. The state pays for five ADAs but is not likely to add another although it is needed, Johnson said.
“A few bad decisions … dug a deep hole for her that she couldn’t get out of,” said Berg of his daughter, who had been an A student, graduated early and was in the National Honor Society.
Berg said he believes both the Sheriff’s Department and the DA’s office need staff whose sole job is to apprehend and prosecute drug dealers.
“Focus on what is important to the community,” he urged the board, suggesting that other departments put their funding requests on hold to find money to prosecute drug dealers.
Kiesler made a motion to amend the budget and add a full-time drug prosecutor with a two-year sunset.
“The big problem we have in our county now is heroin,” said Johnson, adding St. Croix has had eight heroin deaths in the last 12 months. He said his office gets about 300 drug cases a year.
Johnson said prosecuting drug cases is a specialty, and he would assign an experienced prosecutor to the task.
“Safety to me is probably the biggest responsibility of government,” Johnson said.
“I think in two years we can make a significant dent in this problem,” he said, pointing out that having a prosecutor who specialized in meth cases was instrumental in changing state law and getting a handle on that problem.
Administrator Thompson said the newly formed Community Justice Collaborating Council, which represents 14 entities, will be looking at “a wide spectrum of the correctional system” and should be given time to evaluate this problem.
“I don’t think it will take months,” Thompson said. “We just need to give them time.”
Another prosecutor may not be the solution, said Hudson-area Supervisor Tim Hood. “I would rather put the money into prevention and diversion … rather than into prosecution.”
Also, Hood said, he doesn’t feel the county should pay for what should be a state-funded position.
No money is being taken away from treatment and prevention, a new deputy is being added in the Sheriff’s Department, and Johnson needs another prosecutor, Kiesler said. “They are working together, but it’s a multi-piece puzzle.”
“We’re not a poor county. We have the dollars to spend,” Kiesler said. “It’s a matter of where we want to spend them.”
Hudson Supervisor Fred Yoerg was also skeptical about solving the problem by adding a prosecutor.
“By the time Eric sees these people, the house had burned down, the damage has been done,” he said.
The motion to add the ADA failed on an 10-8 vote.
In his proposed budget, Thompson included provision for a full-time coordinator for the Community Justice Collaborating Council. It’s expected the position’s salary would be about $30,000, but benefits and start-up expenses bring the anticipated 2014 cost to $54,000. It’s hoped that a grant will cover half the cost.
Formation of the CJCC was approved by the board in May, and Clerk of Court Lori Meyer has assigned one of her deputies to the council temporarily.
Malick pointed out that Drug Court started without a coordinator and suggested asking the council to work without staff for six months.
The council is so new, it seems too early to decide if it needs a coordinator, agreed Town of Troy Supervisor Tom Hawksford.
“The work of the CJCC is going to have to be staffed,” Thompson said. “Otherwise they’re not going to get anything done.”
He said he stands by his recommendation to hire a coordinator.
The worker will be doing more than staffing meetings, Meyer said. She said some of that other work includes risk-needs assessments.
Motions to reduce the budget amount by half and to cut funding entirely both failed.
Hood made a motion to reduce the budgeted revenue by $739,000 — the amount the county expects to get from its vehicle registration fee.
Effective Jan. 1, 2008, a St. Croix County charge of $5 was tacked on to the fee the state charges to register a car or small truck.
The fee is now $10 per vehicle, and St. Croix is the only Wisconsin county with a wheel tax, according to the Department of Transportation website. The cities of Milwaukee, Beloit, Janesville and Mayville have wheel taxes.
“This is just another unnecessary, burdensome tax,” Hood said.
The money was intended to help the county get caught up with road work, said Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg.
The Highway Department has a $1.8 million fund balance and shouldn’t need the wheel tax, Hawksford said. The carryover is money and materials set aside for planned projects, replied Ramberg.
It takes a couple of months to repeal an ordinance and the state requires a 60-day notice to deactivate the fee, so the money would continue to be collected for months, said County Board Chairman Daryl Standafer. He said the money must be spent on highway work or refunded — a complicated process of sending $10 checks to an unknown number of vehicle owners.
The board voted to refer the issue to the Transportation Committee, which is expected to take it up at its next meeting.
Jobs and pay
Nine job titles were moved to new pay grades, resulting in salary increases for the incumbents.
Those include human resources director, finance director, facilities director, jail administrator, Public Health sanitarian, Public Health nutritionist, land information administrator, senior management analyst and code administrator.
A total of $49,000 is budgeted for those pay-grade adjustments.
“I flat out can’t see the need,” said Supervisor Andy Brinkman, who represents the towns of Richmond, Warren and Erin Prairie.
He pointed out that one of those workers was hired just five months ago and another got a “substantial raise” last year.
“I can’t believe that we are missing pay grades by this amount in the county,” Brinkman said.
“Are we feathering our own nest?” asked Kiesler, pointing out that seven of the nine jobs are administration positions.
“It’s an adjustment based on market conditions,” replied Thompson.
He said job classifications are reviewed annually.
Right or wrong, the last time the County Board authorized a job market study, the consultant was told not to look at Minnesota entities as comparables, Kiesler said.
These adjustments do take into account Minnesota salaries because the county is in that job market, responded Human Resources Director Tammy Funk.
The 2014 budget adds four new jobs: CJCC coordinator, a deputy in the Sheriff’s Department, a human resources generalist and a second deputy register of deeds.
There is no across-the-board pay increase, but $400,000 is budgeted to continue the county’s pay for performance plan.
Last week’s meeting, devoted mostly to the budget, started at 9 a.m. Supervisors worked through the lunch hour, and the budget was adopted on an 11-4 vote at 3:25 p.m.