La Crosse County officials can point to some positive news going into Monday’s public hearing on the annual budget.
Strong growth in new construction means the state will allow a 2 percent hike in the county’s operating-fund tax levy, which means an extra $500,000 to work with. The new construction, combined with a strong real estate market, translates into a dip in the tax rate, which will decrease almost 3.5 percent to $3.75 per $1,000 in equalized property value, after three years at $3.89 per $1,000.
A person with a home with an equalized property value of $100,000 would pay $375 for the county portion of the upcoming property tax bill, down from last year’s $389. That savings of $14, however, presumes a stable property value.
La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley expects most property owners will see the county portion of their tax bills — which also includes school district and municipal levies — to decrease slightly or stay flat.
“I think it’s very good news for the public,” O’Malley said. “Overall, the public should be very pleased.”
The proposed 2018 budget calls for $161.3 million in gross spending, roughly three-quarters of which involves state or federal funding that the county must use for specific purposes, the biggest share in health and human services.
The county levy is projected to go up 2 percent, rising from almost $33.7 million to just over $34.3 million. Almost $5.8 million of that 2018 levy is for debt payments, and a little over $2 million is for the county library system.
This is O’Malley’s 15th La Crosse County budget, and it stands out. “This was easily the most challenging budget I’ve done in 32 years,” he said.
One big problem this year is that the jail ate up almost all of the $496,000 in levy growth, with a combination of increased costs and decreased revenue totaling $474,000. On the revenue side, a full jail means no revenue from boarding out-of-county prisoners. This year, O’Malley noted, the county budgeted $200,000 in revenue from boarding prisoners but only took in $1,000 because of the high inmate head count.
Next year, the county can’t count on any inmate boarding income, and, in fact, has budgeted $50,000 in case La Crosse County prisoners have to be housed in another county’s jail because of crowding. Sheriff Steve Helgeson had sought $200,000 to hire additional jailers needed to open a jail pod now used for inmate programming.
Since the budget was initially put together, O’Malley said, the jail population has stabilized. “We’re not looking at a crisis for now,” he said.
That’s the thing about budgets, O’Malley said. Things always change.
“Every budget is wrong by the time you adopt it,” he said. “There are just so many moving parts in a budget.”
The difficulty this year was finding places to cut to make up for the jail issues and to allow for a 1.5 percent across-the-board pay increase for county employees.
Elimination of the county’s “nuisance” mosquito abatement program is one spending cut that could generate discussion at the public hearing and during the ensuing board debate. The budget includes $40,000 to contract to deal with disease-causing mosquitoes, but the county would no longer treat for the merely annoying but non-disease-carrying varieties.
A handful of other possible hot budget topics include the following:
Board member Kim Cable, who has been deeply involved in the La Crosse Collaborate to End Homelessness, is making a last-minute pitch to include $500,000 in the budget to create a fund that would take steps to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
“Locally, as a community, we have very little in the way of prevention activities,” Cable said, noting that getting homeless people back in housing is an estimated three times as expensive as taking preventive steps to keep them in their homes. “The idea is to infuse the system with enough money to flip the switch on how we use our crisis dollars.”
There is no plan yet on how the money would be spent and who would be making the decisions on how to spend the money. What Cable is asking her fellow county board members to do is build $500,000 into the budget as a one-time expenditure that she said could help leverage funding from other organizations.
The money would come from the county’s unassigned fund balance. The county board policy is to have a fund balance of 25 to 50 percent of total county spending. Last year it was at 57 percent, and that has risen to 58.5 percent.
O’Malley has been a strong advocate for keeping a high fund balance because it helps the county maximize its bond rating, which means lower costs for borrowing, and because of so much uncertainty about whether money the federal and state government have promised the county will come through. Having a high fund balance “protects the organization against massive changes,” he said.
Even given his preference to keep a higher fund balance, O’Malley said Cable’s proposal makes sense because it would likely save the county money in other areas, such as medical treatment costs, law enforcement and imprisonment, mental health treatment and more.
“The issue with homelessness is that it’s something that affects us in so many ways budgetarily that are under the radar,” O’Malley said.
Cable’s idea got nearly unanimous support from the county board’s Executive Committee and Health and Human Services Board.
“This investment will pay back, probably in spades,” said board member Monica Kruse, who chairs the HHS board.
Board member Dave Holtze was cautiously supportive of the idea. “The theory is good,” he said. “I’m willing to listen for further information.”
Only one board member on those two committees, Matt Nikolay, expressed any opposition. “Five hundred thousand dollars is a wee bit steep for me. I don’t know if I can support that high a number,” he said.
Most county fees are staying put in the 2018 budget, but a major increase is in the works for “after-the-fact” permit fees. Right now, the county charges double the usual fee for permits that are retroactively issued. For example, when people start running a business out of a garage before obtaining a conditional-use permit, they now pay double to apply for that permit.
Board members will debate increasing that to triple the normal charge, a move prompted by a recent case in which a property owner’s obvious disregard for getting the required permits rankled many board members.
Charlie Handy of the county’s Zoning and Planning Department said almost all people who have to apply for after-the-fact permits say they didn’t know they needed the permit, and most of them are probably telling the truth. There’s one problem: “We don’t have a lie detector in the office,” he said.
Some board members have expressed hesitancy to punish the people who don’t know just to have a harsher penalty for blatant violators. But board member Mike Giese argued that more people would probably make a point of knowing they needed permits if there was a significant consequence. “You’ve got to increase the cost of ignorance,” he said.
The county budget includes $50,000 for membership in a number of business and economic development organizations, but some board members have expressed an interest in pulling funding from the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce for next year.
Some board members are unhappy that the chamber took an active role recently in lobbying lawmakers in Madison to oppose giving the county the opportunity to implement a premier resort area tax, a special half-percent sales tax that the county has pledged to use to catch up on a backlog of nearly $90 million in road and bridge maintenance.
Fifty-five percent of voters last April supported the idea of the tax in an advisory referendum. The chamber, however, actively lobbied against the tax during the recent Oktoberfest Day at the Capitol.
“There should be some kind of a statement that we’re not happy with them,” said Holtze, who said he has a long history of Chamber involvement. “They’re too reactionary for my thinking. I’m done with them.”
While the Chamber voted against the county’s interests, board member Sharon Hampson said, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering that it’s a conservative business organization. “We knew that going in,” she said. “I think we still need to be involved and get their perspective on things. I don’t’ think we quit because of one item.”
Hampson was the only member of the Executive Committee to oppose pulling the Chamber’s funding.
County board pay
The full county board is up for re-election in April, and they might end up getting slightly more pay for their efforts if they get re-elected.
County board members have not had a pay increase since 2013 (2009 in the case of the chair), with the current monthly pay set at $1,270 for the chair and $411 for each of the other 28 board members.
Board members will consider a resolution that would increase that pay by 1.5 percent, which would mean $19 more per month for the chair and $6 more per month for the rest.
Board members used to get health care insurance benefits for their service as well, but it has been years since that was the case, and they are not eligible for retirement benefits based on their service.