In the end, the La Crosse County Board approved a 2018 budget without dissent, but there was plenty of discussion and disagreement on the way to the final product during a meeting Monday night that was just over four hours long.

The approved budget includes last-minute additions of $500,000 to help fund an effort to prevent homelessness and $10,000 for the La Crosse County Agricultural Society to help in the transition to running the county fair without help from the county’s UW-Extension office.

It also includes a 1.5 percent raise in pay for county board members starting after the April election, matching the 1.5 percent pay increase county employees will get under the budget. The final budget preserves membership in the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce, keeps after-the-fact zoning and permit fees the same, and does away with the county’s nuisance mosquito abatement program while budgeting for a contract to work on mosquito-borne disease prevention.

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Steve O'Malley

O’Malley

The changes approved Monday didn’t budge the bottom line for taxpayers from the budget proposed by County Administrator Steve O’Malley, which calls for a total county levy of just over $34.3 million. That includes the $2 million levy for the county library system which is not paid by property owners in the city of La Crosse and almost $5.8 million for debt payments.

O’Malley noted that the county’s levy is the sixth-lowest per capita in the state, which puts the county one notch lower than last year’s seventh-lowest levy.

Despite the additional spending approved, the tax rate will be $3.75 per $1,000 in equalized value, down 14 cents from the $3.89 charged the past three years. On a $100,000 home, people will pay $375 for county purposes, down $14 from the previous year if there has been no change in the property’s assessment. In the city of La Crosse, the tax bill is a bit less because there’s no library levy: $3.53 per $1,000, down from $3.66 the previous year.

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Tara Johnson mug

Johnson

The $500,000 for homelessness prevention first surfaced last week at the board’s Executive Committee meeting, and board Chair Tara Johnson said she was to blame for the big decision being sprung on board members. Johnson explained that she, fellow board member Kim Cable and associate county administrator Jane Klekamp were at an event a few weeks ago launching the latest “sprint” effort by the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness.

The collaborative has had great success with its sprints, getting 72 homeless people into housing so far, but Johnson said their conversation turned to prevention. “We were frustrated that we continue to have some of the same issues around a sustainable sustained effort to end homelessness in this community,” Johnson said. “We are trying to ride the success of the work of the collaborative and really put an end to homelessness in the community.”

Last week, Cable pitched the idea that the county should earmark $500,000 of its fund balance to help fund homelessness prevention, which she said could keep 400 to 500 people per year from having to use emergency shelters and could actually save the county money in the long run by keeping those people from using other county services, from medical and mental health treatment to arrests and jail confinement.

Once someone becomes homeless, Cable argues, it costs a lot more to get them back in stable housing than it would to take preventive steps to keep them in their homes. And the county’s money would help attract other private-sector donations to the cause, which she said is a crisis.

“For us to know that this is going on in our community and not do anything is irresponsible,” Cable said. “Why aren’t we concerned about this situation?”

The $500,000 figure was a placeholder, with details yet to come on how the money would be used and who would make spending decisions, and that lack of specificity bothered many board members, along with the idea’s spur-of-the-moment nature. Some board members said they were concerned about the homeless situation, but they also were concerned about the lack of details.

O’Malley emphasized that the board will get a chance to vote and have input on how the money is used when the program has been designed and comes back to the board for approval. “Not one dollar is spent until you act on this again,” he said.

Board member Ralph Geary argued that the county board could just wait until the program details were known before deciding whether to spend the money. He noted that the board can amend the budget at any time during the year. It just takes a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority.

Board member Steve Doyle said the county doing something outside the box like this will help get the homelessness prevention effort going in a way it might not without a $500,000 boost. “This is a proposal that you could characterize as seed money,” he said. “That seed is going to grow, with other people’s seeds being put in there too and that is going to solve the problem.”

The board voted 22-7 in favor what Johnson described as a $500,000 investment. Laurence Berg, Ray Ebert, Dan Ferries, Jerome Gundersen, Dan Hesse, Matt Nikolay and Tina Wehrs voted against the funding.

County board pay

The board was more divided over whether to approve a 1.5 percent raise for board members and the chair, to take effect after the spring election. The proposal would increase the monthly pay from $411 to $417 for board members, a $6 per month raise. The chair’s pay would go from $1,270 to $1,289, a $19 per month increase.

Some board members argued that their county board positions are a public service and that the pay is not that important. “I don’t think any of us are doing this for an extra $72 per year,” Gundersen said of the pay increase.

Board member Margaret Larson said she’d rather see board members not get raises and have that money go to Johnson because of all the work she puts in.

Other board members said the raise is merited. “You pay for what you value and I think the people of La Crosse County get a good value from this body. … We do our homework and we do a good job,” Doyle said. “I’ve been through this debate a lot of times, and what we always seem to do is beat up on each other. I don’t think I’ve ever had a constituent complain about county board compensation.”

There was one citizen at the public hearing — Steve Gores — who argued against the pay increase. Gores also suggested that the county administrator position should be elected to increase accountability and that the board should all vote against the proposed budget.

The board approved the pay increase 18-10, with Berg abstaining. Opposing the pay increase were Ebert, Ferries, Ralph Geary, Gundersen, Hesse, Nikolay, Wehrs, Rick Cornforth, Margaret Larson and Isaac Tahiri.

Chamber fees

Vicki Markussen, the Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, was among the handful of speakers during the public hearing on the budget, and she argued against the county pulling out of the Chamber, not because of the $3,090 it would lose but because of the enhanced “dialogue” being at the table brings.

“What is healthy is agreeing to disagree and continuing to work respectfully in areas of commonality,” she said.

The Chamber has taken a strong stance against the county’s proposed premier resort area tax and actively lobbied against it during a trip to Madison last month.

Some members didn’t have a problem with the lobbying as much as the lack of clear communication about it from the Chamber.

Board member Sharon Hampson didn’t see any benefit to dropping out. “I don’t see that there’s any reason to drop out of one just because they don’t agree with us on one issue,” she said. “I’m not a member of any group that agrees with me 100 percent of the time.”

Doyle agreed: “That’s just life. They’re doing their job,” he said. “I don’t see this as anything other than retaliation.”

Nikolay said he had a problem with the county being a member of the Chamber but not being in business groups representing small communities in the county.

The board voted 26-3 to continue Chamber membership, with Holtze, Nikolay and Pfaff voting in the minority.

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Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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