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Show Me the Money–It’s Budget Time Again

Budget season is upon us. It is that time of year when local units of government prepare their budgets for the following year. It is a daunting task; and one that I, as a County Board Supervisor, take very seriously. The review and approval of the annual County budget is, perhaps, the most important responsibility of the County Board. Through the budget process, funding priorities are established for the coming year, and the tax levy for county residents is established. Just as we, as individuals, grapple with income and expenses in creating our own budgets; the preparation of the County’s budget is no different. To be sure, the figures are much larger than the average household budget. Last year’s County budget was over $83 million. The arduous, complex, and sometimes controversial budget development process will ultimately lead to a budget proposal for 2022 that will support numerous County programs and services, many of which are mandated by State and Federal government agencies. Ongoing State imposed levy limits, the COVID pandemic, the looming closure of the power plant in Portage, and increasing demands for services will provide special challenges for the 2022 Columbia County budget.

At its June meeting, the County Board Finance Committee advised departments to prepare their budgets at 0%, meaning no increase from this current budget year. Though costs for many County programs have increased, dollars to support them have remained largely the same. Adding to the financial pressure felt by the County is something called levy limits which were established by the State Legislature in 2006. Basically, the State regulates how much local governments can increase their property tax levy each year. The idea is to control the growth in property taxes. Unfortunately, there are no limits on the growth of programs and services the County is expected to or are required to provide. The County can not, for example, set a limit on how many calls for assistance the Sheriff’s department will respond to, nor would County residents want such a limit. Similarly, there are many Health and Human Services programs for which we must provide service. While there have been proposals to lift and/or modify levy limits, none have been successful to date.

The COVID pandemic came with added pressures and additional financial challenges for county government. Public health staff worked nearly around the clock. Emergency calls increased exponentially. More lap tops were required to enable employees to work from home. Temp labor was needed by solid waste to keep operations going. These are not the only examples. Many other county operations were impacted by the pandemic. All of these unforeseen circumstances had a financial impact. On the positive side, funds from Federal and State government helped to ease the financial burden caused by the pandemic. Also positive was the fact that Columbia County did not experience the drop in revenue that many local governments did; sales tax remained steady and residents made their property tax payments. As with our personal lives, however, there will be lingering affects of the pandemic for some time to come.

The closure of the Columbia Power Plant is on the minds of County officials. Several news articles have appeared that outline the potential budgetary impact. Columbia County receives $1.7 million in utility aids from the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin utilities do not pay property taxes, but they do pay a tax based on gross receipts. The State then distributes a percentage of these receipts to towns and counties in which the plant is located. The County expects to lose approximately $850,000 when unit 1 of the plant closes in 2023. No one argues with the need to address climate change and power plants are major contributors, but the financial impact is also real and cannot be denied.

So what does all of this mean to you as a resident of Columbia County? You can be certain that County department budget proposals will be thoroughly reviewed. This term I am chair of the Solid Waste and County Library Board Committees, so I will be paying particular attention to those budgets. I am also a member of the Public Safety (Includes Emergency Management, Sheriff’s office, and Medical Examiner) Committee, so I will participate in the review of that budget as well. I am deeply concerned that the County continue to provide the programs and services at the same level that it has in the past and meet the needs of County residents. County departments have been doing more with less for a long time, and it becomes more challenging every year. There are some unknowns. For example, we do not know all the specifics about the power plant closure. Though not to be counted on, there is the potential of additional Federal and State funds (i.e. pandemic recovery funds). As always, the wise use of limited resources including tax dollars is of paramount concern.

In November, the proposed County 2022 budget will be reviewed and approved by the County Board. That meeting includes a public hearing on the proposed budget and thus, an opportunity for Columbia County citizens to comment and provide input on it.

This brief article on the budget challenges facing the County certainly does not do justice to the amount of work and detailed discussions involved the preparation of the annual County budget. If this seems like a long, involved process. IT IS! The process for 2022 is just starting, and I hope this article gives you an idea of the considerations and issues involved in its development. As always, I am happy to talk with you about the budget and budget process. I may not be able to ‘show you the money,’ but I will do my best to answer your questions, if I can, or refer you to County officials with more information.

Nancy Long
County Board Supervisor-District #27 Lodi

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