The La Crosse Common Council has adopted its 2022 Operating Budget, a spending plan that includes another slight tax increase and opts out of a state spending restriction that will free up use of one-time pandemic funds.
The city plans to spend about $67.5 million next year, with just over $60 million of that in operating expenses alone.
Property owners will see another increase to the city’s portion of their taxes next year; the average $150,000 homeowner will see about $32 extra on the bill with a tax rate of $10.83 per $1,000 of valued property, which is just under a 2% increase from 2021.
It’s the second year in a row the city has increased its tax rate, though officials followed through on their commitment to an increase similar to last year’s, and it’s a far cry from the 13% hike estimated in the original budget.
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After needing to trim about $4 million from the initial budget in order to avoid the hike, cuts were made to city departments, largely to parks, streets and public safety, but with some atypical one-time revenue from COVID relief, officials wanted to explore the option of using that to fatten the 2022 budget.
This required the city to opt-out of what’s known as the Expenditure Restraint Program (ERP) with the state, which limits how much a municipality can increase its yearly spending in exchange for some state funding.
Historically, the city has received a little over $1 million through the ERP, and officials thought opting-out could be a good chance to help the city overcome the budget hurdles it’s faced amid the pandemic.
The city would have been required to only increase its spending by 3.6% in 2022 through the ERP, or roughly $2 million. The city can opt-out of the program at any time and opt back in again from year-to-year.
Officials at Monday night’s special meeting saw a mixed bag of impacts that forgoing the program could bring, with some seeing it as a concern as the city continues to raise taxes.
“I’m not opposed to opting out but seriously, there’s a reason that they try to keep you in there and if you have to cut staff, if you have to cut services or whatever that just means we have a harder time working on our budget. That’s our fiscal responsibility, not continuously raising taxes,” said council member Scott Neumeister.
“We are taxed to death in La Crosse, Wisconsin and I think everybody knows it, that’s why we continue to lose residents to our surrounding cities,” he said. “We need to be careful, I see it for this year. I don’t know if I like it long-term, I’m hesitant to go along with that theory.”
Some other council members agreed, with council member Chris Kahlow saying she was not yet “convinced” to leave the program this year.
Fenske emphasized to the council that officials only intended to opt out of the program for one year — which would cause the city to lose out on the state funding for 2023 — and then return.
The benefits, Fenske and other council members highlighted, to opting out would be that it would raise the ceiling of how much the city could spend the next time it joined the program.
While not participating in the ERP, the city is free to increase its expenditures at a greater rate, and after this more free spending, whenever the city would decide to opt back in its limitations would build off of the last annual budget it approved. For example, instead of only increasing a few percentage points from a $65 million budget, the city could increase from a starting point of a $75 million budget, if that’s how much it increased while out of the program.
“It really sets us up on a better path for the future,” Fenske said.
She said that even though the city is budgeted to get about $1.2 million from this year’s ERP payout, the city was looking to cut about that much from departments anyways due to the restraints.
“I like to think of this as kind-of the downward spiral that you get caught in and it’s very difficult to get out of,” Fenske said. “How does that make sense that every year, just to get that money from the state we have to cut that much from our actual departments — and it really means cutting staff which really translates into services quite often.”
Despite some concerns the council voted unanimously to opt out of the ERP on Monday, with council member Justice Weaver not in attendance.
This choice freed up funds to fill the $1,025,000 cuts the city initially made to the budget and to hire a new public information officer, a position La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds has advocated for but had been cut from the final versions of the budget.
“We talked the other night about being bold and I think that this probably fits into that category as well,” said council president Barb Janssen who supported opting out of the ERP, saying the move helped the city “maintain” services and not increase them.
Reynolds called this budget, his first, “the big show,” and while it doesn’t include a lot of large, splashy components like past years, it does help restore some of the services the city cut during the pandemic.
Through the use of American Rescue Plan Act dollars the city will be able to rehire three library staff members that were laid off because of COVID-19, an increase of about $199,828. Services that have been restored at the La Crosse Center are also being covered by COVID relief.
In total, the city’s public safety departments of police and fire have the largest budgets for 2022, each receiving a small boost and outlining about $12 million in expenses.