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La Crosse County officials preparing for possible pause in redistricting, admin in favor
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La Crosse County officials preparing for possible pause in redistricting, admin in favor

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La Crosse County officials are preparing for a possible extension in redistricting local electoral maps after census data was delayed amid the pandemic.

County Administrator Steve O’Malley outlined the possibility to supervisors at a planning meeting Monday evening, emphasizing that the deadlines for municipalities to redistrict are state mandated and would take a state Legislature vote to move.

“It’s not an ideal situation, but we did not create it. The census bureau and the federal government did not follow through on their requirements,” O’Malley said. “And there’s really no alternative.”

Steve O'Malley

O’Malley

State law currently requires all counties to adopt tentative supervisory districts by July 1, less than a month away, though municipalities have yet to see census data. The 2020 census data for local municipalities is not expected to be released until next spring, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s schedule.

O’Malley said he testified before the state last week alongside the Wisconsin Counties Association in support of a bill proposing extending the deadlines into next year. He said that most counties also support the move.

The bill, if approved, would extend the redistricting process into next spring and summer, and would leave maps as-is for local spring 2022 elections, including the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors races. The next round of city of La Crosse elections for Common Council in 2023 would not be affected, and new maps would be drawn up before then.

Some Democrats and fair maps advocates have already stated their disapproval of extending the deadline, arguing it would disenfranchise communities that have had drastic population changes in the last decade, and already signaling that legal battles would be likely if the bill was passed.

O’Malley, who often shares Democrats’ views, said extending the deadline would not get in the middle of the ongoing partisan debate about remapping in the state.

“This will not impact the controversy or debate going on about the Legislature and the governor for the fall elections,” he said, emphasizing it would only maintain current maps for spring 2022 elections.

“It’s going to be debated more. There are some people that feel that somehow this is part of the partisan debate that’s going on about fair maps and those types of things. It is not WCA’s intent, my intent or anybody’s intent to affect any of that. That will happen after we end up dealing with our supervisory districts,” O’Malley said.

County board chair Monica Kruse said she plans to have the redistricting committee ready for approval for the board next week already, despite there likely being no work for them for several months because of the hot button item redistricting is.

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Monica Kruse

Kruse

“Given the fact that there is some partisan dissent on this issue I want to be erring on the side of caution,” she said. The county Executive Committee will take up the issue of the committee on Wednesday morning.

“We’re already unable to meet the statutory guidelines that are in the state,” O’Malley told the board. “It’s impossible. So legislative action has to happen.”

First federal relief money received

O’Malley told the board Monday that the county and other local governments in the area had received the first half of the American Rescue Plan funding earlier that day.

The county, which can receive up to $22.9 million through the federal COVID relief fund, received $11,461,612, he said. The second half of the funding will arrive next June.

County officials will get to decide what to spend the money on, but leadership is still working to clearly understand the guidelines, and no action has yet been taken.

So far, the county said it knows it can be used for COVID mitigation refunds, economic hardship, pay for essential workers and some infrastructure.

It also recently discovered it can use it to replace lost public sector revenue, which O’Malley said he initially thought the county would not qualify for because it ended the year on a fiscal high note, but more investigation found that federal relief, like CARES Act money, was excluded.

The county will calculate funds lost over 2020-2023, O’Malley noting it’s likely to exceed the $22.9 million. As it’s currently understood, the use of those funds have more flexibility than the other spending categories.

Things the county and municipalities may not spend the funds on include cutting taxes, it appears, although the language is still unclear and misstepping on this could cause the county to pay back any cuts.

O’Malley said that he and other officials have already been approached by area nonprofits and businesses, and he cautioned officials when dealing with those requests, noting that the county is not currently in a position to take applications for the funding.

It’s currently unclear when the decision will begin to be made on spending the relief. The funds can be used for costs between March 3, 2021-Dec. 31, 2024, and must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

"It's not an ideal situation, but we did not create it. The census bureau and the federal government did not follow through on their requirements. And there's really no alternative."

Steve O'Malley, county administrator

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