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St. Croix closes in on balanced 2009 budget

Department budget requests must be cut. County sales tax income is falling short of projections. Property tax money spent on the county nursing home is money that can't be used for other needs.

Those are three of the messages St. Croix County Finance Committee members will bring to the full County Board when they offer a budget proposal Tuesday, Oct. 21.

Although they're not there yet, Finance Committee members spent about six hours last Thursday hammering out a 2009 budget.

A week earlier, the committee started its Oct. 2 meeting with a $1.3-million gap between budget requests and anticipated revenue. During that meeting, the committee made major cuts in the highway, human services and Sheriff's Department budgets and cut the chasm to $200,000. Several departments were asked to trim specific amounts from their budgets and to report back Oct. 9.

During the Oct. 9 meeting, the committee heard reports on those cuts but widened the gap when members agreed that UW-Extension projections for sales tax have been too optimistic. The committee cut $520,000 from anticipated sales tax revenue.

Here are some of the main discussion items at last week's meeting:

Sales tax

Projections received from UW-Extension, the county's usual source for those estimates, set the county's 2009 sales tax receipts at $5.2 million.

"I think we're fooling ourselves if we think the forecast in sales tax is an accurate number," said Finance Committee Chairman Daryl Standafer.

The county has traditionally used the UW-Extension numbers because the university has researchers to figure the projections, said Finance Director Michelle Pietrick.

"But," she said, "the past two years their forecasts have been overly optimistic."

The committee adopted Supervisor Buck Malick's proposal to reduce the forecast number by 10 percent, cutting $520,000 from anticipated revenues.

Nursing home

For informational purposes, the committee asked Human Services Director Fred Johnson to gather financial details on the property tax levy impact of cutting the number of beds at the county-owned nursing home from 72 to 50. The proposed 2009 budget for the nursing home uses $1 million in property tax money and $191,000 in carry-over funds.

The numbers presented by Johnson last week, which include no allowance for unemployment benefits for lost employees, indicated the county could save $526,580 in 2009 tax money by trimming the home to 50 beds.

This information must be provided to the Board if the November advisory referendum indicates county residents want to continue spending tax money to operate the nursing home, said Supervisor Sharon Norton-Bauman.

The Finance Committee has made deep cuts in budgets for the highway and sheriff's departments, "all to continue to operate a nursing home," said Standafer.

He said it's not that supervisors don't want a nursing home, "The truth is there's no money."

"We subsidize every other department," protested Supervisor Buzz Marzolf, who objected to the nursing home being singled out.

"We're also mandated to (provide law enforcement and highway services), and there's nobody else to do it," replied Standafer.

Sheriff's Department

On Oct. 2, Sheriff Dennis Hillstead offered budget decreases of about $170,000. Last week Hillstead said he could almost reach the $350,000 cut the committee requested by eliminating new employee requests, leaving open a jailer position in the work-release unit, continuing to put off hiring a third security officer for the courts and not replacing a jailer who will be serving in Afghanistan during all of 2009.

Hillstead said that by joining a purchasing consortium, his department can save about $1 a gallon on gasoline. The department uses about 77,000 gallons of gas a year.

The committee voted to allow Hillstead to hire the court security officer if the department can save enough in purchasing to cover the cost.

Hillstead said he can hit the target and still keep the volunteer coordinator and alcohol and drug counselor positions at the jail. He said the AODA position isn't mandated, but it does help control recidivism.

The sheriff also pointed out that the soldier serving in Afghanistan will return stateside in 2010 and will need his county job back then.

Highway Department

At the Oct. 2 meeting, Highway Department representatives agreed to cut $400,000 from their request, explaining that some road work won't be completed.

Pietrick said last week she doesn't expect a detailed explanation of how those cuts will be achieved but will simply reduce the tax money allotted to the department by $400,000.

Register of deeds

After the Oct. 2 meeting, Register of Deeds Kay Walsh was asked to cut $50,000 from her budget.

Last week she said that because most of her costs are for staff, the only way to cut that much is to eliminate one job.

It's unfair to eliminate jobs while funding capital items, protested Supervisor Esther Wentz. She said the requested cut was "an awful lot of money for such a small department."

Because of the slowdown in housing, the workload is down in the register of deeds office, commented Standafer.

"Some of these departments have been asked for more than 10 percent (cuts)," said Administrative Coordinator Chuck Whiting. "The feedback I've been getting is that some departments haven't been asked to do anything."

He said some cuts were suggested because the committee is starting to run out of time to make "coherent decisions."

"If the objective is not to cut staff, you might want to say that up front," suggested Whiting.

Supervisors have talked about the possibility of job cuts for months, said Standafer. "As long as that was hypothetical, everybody was nodding their head -- yes, that's probably where we're going to end up."

Now, he said, when the cuts are looking real, supervisors are having second thoughts.

Action on the register of deeds budget was postponed until the next committee meeting.

At this point, the budget doesn't have money for raises for one union that hasn't reached settlement or increases for many non-union workers and is still about $160,000 short of being balanced. The committee plans to meet Monday, Oct. 20, to continue work.