Public hearing is simple, budget is not

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The public hearing on the 2018 Jefferson County budget may have been a humdrum affair, but several months of hard work went into the document that is likely to be approved without controversy next month.

No one showed up Tuesday to speak to the Jefferson County Board about the 2018 spending plan. That’s not surprising, given that state spending limits have put some pretty tight constraints on what county supervisors can do in this area.

“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room, and we don’t have a lot of dissension over our spending priorities,” County Board Chair Jim Schroeder told reporters before the meeting.

Overall, the budget calls for spending $72.3 million in 2018. The bulk of that money goes to the Sheriff’s Department (including the County Jail), the Human Services Department and the Highway Department.

The countywide tax levy will be $27.4 million. The tax rate is set at 4.1606 mills, meaning the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would pay $416 in property taxes to the county.

Homeowners in parts of the county served by the county Health Department (as opposed to city health departments) and/or local library systems would pay some additional property taxes, bringing the total levy to $29.3 million.

The rest of the budget comes from state and federal money, fines, fees and a countywide sales tax of 0.5 percent.

The total value of taxable property – residential, commercial and industrial – in Jefferson County is about $6.6 billion, which is actually less than it was in 2009. Figures show that the financial crisis of 2007-’08 took a toll on real-estate values, which are only now returning to their former levels.

Because wages and other expenses have risen, the county has had to raise its tax rate, which was 3.5862 mills in 2009 before hitting a high of 4.3917 mills in 2015. The mill rate since has gone down slightly as property values have recovered.

County Supervisor Dick Jones, who is chair of the board’s Finance Committee, told reporters that the county tries to manage its finances conservatively. It has three months of working reserves on hand, plus contingency funds for expenses such as employee retirement payouts.

State laws permit the county to raise taxes based only on new construction, which amounted to a tax increase of about $290,000 for 2018, Jones said.

“Our spending is essentially flat,” Schroeder told reporters. “Fortunately in my time here we have not had to cut services.”

County officials who are finalizing a new strategic plan have concluded that the only way for the county to continue providing a full range of services is through economic growth, which will generate new tax revenue, he said.

“The county has been seen as anti-development” because of its emphasis on preservation of farmland and natural spaces, he said. More “balance” is needed between agriculture and industry to sustain growth, he added.

To that end, a new nonprofit organization – the Glacial Heritage Development Partnership – has set out to raise several million dollars to promote development in the county, Schroeder said.

In other budget outlays, about $1.1 million is allocated to debt service in 2018. That money will be used to pay down construction bonds that were issued to build the county’s highway shop on Highway W on the outskirts of Jefferson.

The county clerk’s office will spend more in 2018 – nearly $505,000, up from $333,000 in 2017. The money will go toward buying new voting machines and other expenses associated with the November 2018 gubernatorial and congressional elections.

One area of strain on the budget has been the opioid addiction crisis, which has put pressure on courts, child support enforcement, law enforcement and human services, Jones said.

Schroeder noted that county supervisors voted in September to join a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies being brought by the Wisconsin Counties Association. The lawsuit seeks compensation to help counties prevent and treat addiction.

Marc Devries, the county’s new finance director, told supervisors Tuesday that they still could submit amendments to the budget. Any amendments will be weighed by the Finance Committee before being forwarded to the full County Board.

The board is expected to give final approval to the 2018 budget at its meeting Nov. 14.




Amid outcry, UWW explains parking plan

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater rolled out its top brass Tuesday to explain its controversial new parking policy and to mend fences with the city’s Common Council.

Chancellor Beverly Kopper, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs Grace Crickette and UWW Police Chief Matt Kiederlen assured the council that the university does not want to hurt the “town and gown” relationship with the new plan, which requires UWW permits for parking on Prince and Prairie streets.

Citizens have complained that the plan deprives them of parking spaces near UWW and imposes “double taxation” for anyone who parks on streets that already are paid for in the city budget.

“Our parking assets are getting more and more stretched,” Kiederlen said, noting that the university will lose an additional 200 parking spaces in Lot 9, on Warhawk Drive near the Kachel Fieldhouse, when construction of a new residence hall begins.

Lots on the south side of campus routinely are 90 percent filled on weekdays, Kiederlen said. He added that the university is trying to ease the parking crunch by, among other things, allowing students with north-side commuter stickers to park anywhere on campus after 5 p.m.

Crickette explained that UWW wants its parking operation to be “self-sustaining” so the university can devote its money to its core mission of educating students.

The cost of most annual parking permits went up $20 this year. Daily permits rose from $3 to $5, and parking tickets went from $15 to $25.

UWW is paying the city $45,000 a year for rights to control the spaces on Prince and Prairie streets, and is reaping at most $30,000 a year in revenue from the related permits, Crickette said. Both she and Kiederlen said parking fines are not a moneymaking scheme but are meant to ensure that the rules are followed.

No immediate action was taken, but the UWW officials and the council indicated they were open to future talks to change the agreement. Council member Stephanie Goettl asked that the matter be placed on a future council agenda for possible action.

City budget

In other business Tuesday, City Manager Cameron Clapper presented a first look at the proposed 2018 city budget, which calls for spending about $30,000 less than this year.

The budget – which still is subject to committee meetings, a public hearing and approval by the Common Council – envisions spending of $9,174,846 in 2018, compared with $9,204,722 in 2017.

About half that money is intergovernmental revenue, mostly from the State of Wisconsin, and about 37 percent comes from property taxes. The rest comes mostly from fines and fees.

City employees will get a wage increase of 1.5 percent, but they will have to pay more for health insurance, covering 15 percent of the cost of coverage as opposed to 12 percent currently.

Clapper told the council that the budget picture is not as smooth as it might first appear.

“To the average person there is not much evidence of financial trouble,” but holes are being plugged with money that really should be set aside for long-term maintenance, he said.

In the long term, the city is hamstrung by state revenue caps that sharply limit increases in property taxes, Clapper said.

He said the city must look to alternate revenue sources, such as economic growth that would generate more tax revenue. The city’s news financial consultant, Ehlers & Associates, will help with planning, he said.

After a series of Finance Committee meetings on Thursday nights, the full budget will be presented to the council at its Nov. 7 meeting. A public hearing and a vote of approval are set for the meeting on Nov. 21.

Landmarks Commission

Also on Tuesday, a protest outside the Municipal Building portended a possibly explosive debate about designation of city landmarks, but the tension fizzled as soon as the issue was more fully explained.

Voting 6-0 with member Carol McCormick absent, the council approved an ordinance proposed by member Christopher Grady that would require the city Landmarks Commission to notify the city manager and Common Council when considering conferring landmark status on any city-owned property.

Grady explained that the Common Council had been caught off guard when the Landmarks Commission declared the city-owned Walton Oaks Park a landmark in August.

Grady said landmark status might impose some excessive costs on the city if, for example, a landmark was destroyed in a storm and the city was required to rebuild it.

Other council members expressed skepticism about this concern but voted for the ordinance because they said it would make the designation process more open and clear.

A second ordinance introduced by Grady would have allowed the council to strip landmark status from any city-owned property. That ordinance failed. Grady moved for its adoption, but his motion was not seconded.

Before the meeting, about 20 protesters had gathered outside the Municipal Building with signs reading “Protect Cultural History” and “Save Our Landmarks.”