Jefferson County looks ahead

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

An apparently non-controversial budget moved one step closer to passage Tuesday (Oct. 22) at the Jefferson County Board meeting, but that quiet event was accompanied by notes of much bigger things to come.

Just one citizen voiced concerns during a public hearing on the budget, which would spend about $85 million in 2020 on services ranging from parks to law enforcement.

Talking to reporters before the meeting, however, board Chair Jim Schroeder and others noted that supervisors would face major decisions – including a possible multimillion-dollar upgrade to the Jefferson County Courthouse – in coming months.

Such moves may require the county to take on debt, something it historically has been reluctant to do.

Supervisor Dick Jones, chair of the board’s Finance Committee, warned that the existing “duct-tape approach” to maintenance of county facilities would lead to a “downward spiral” as the county poured money into propping up aging buildings and equipment.

Schroeder likened the situation to “an old car that’s nickel-and-diming you to death.” Modernizing or replacing county facilities would be a better investment in the long run, he said.

Among other items, the county’s analog emergency-response communications network needs to be upgraded to digital. Major systems in the 50-year-old courthouse, such as air conditioning and cable routing, also need replacement.

However, the County Board will have to accomplish that without Schroeder’s leadership. He announced at the end of Tuesday’s meeting that he will not seek re-election in April 2020. The board will have to choose a new chair from among its members after they are sworn in later that month.

County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said he hoped to secure a contract with a consultant by the end of this year to recommend a range of upgrades and possible new construction for county facilities. To keep costs reasonable, officials are committed to renovating the courthouse at its current downtown Jefferson location rather than building elsewhere, he said.

The proposed 2020 county budget includes a property-tax levy of just over $30 million, compared with $28 million this year. Because of higher assessments of property value, the countywide tax rate would fall to 3.809 mills, down from 3.991 mills in the current budget.

Under the new tax rate, a property owner would pay $380.90 in county property taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value.

Major spending categories include social services, highways and public safety – the jail, Sheriff’s Department and emergency response.

In addition to property-tax revenue, the county hopes to reap about $6.5 million from its 0.5 percent sales tax. Most of the remainder of the budget comes from shared revenue from the state and federal governments for social services and highway maintenance.

During the public hearing Tuesday, Anita Martin of Lake Mills noted that the Land and Water Conservation Department appeared to have lost one staff position. She asked that the department be fully staffed to protect natural resources.

Supervisors have been asked to submit any proposed budget amendments in writing for consideration by the Finance Committee. The budget is slated for approval in November and will take effect Jan. 1.

Solar farm update

In other business Tuesday, the board heard from Wehmeier on progress toward a new solar electric facility to be built by Badger State Solar LLC.

The 1,500-acre, 149-megawatt project would consist of rows of solar electric panels located west of the city of Jefferson near Highway 18 in the Town of Jefferson and Town of Oakland.

Under state law, power plants that generate more than 100 megawatts are overseen primarily by the state Public Service Commission. But the county has drafted a Joint Development Agreement with Badger State Solar to regulate factors such as fencing, setbacks from waterways, and a $1 million bond for eventual dismantling of the project. The solar farm’s expected lifetime is 25 to 50 years, Wehmeier told the board.

The Public Service Commission will meet Nov. 6 at the Jefferson County Fair Park Community Center to discuss the project. Opportunities for public comment will come at 2 and 6 p.m. during the meeting, Wehmeier said.

The project would be an economic plus for local governments, Wehmeier noted. Under the Wisconsin Utility Shared Revenue program, the county and the two affected town governments could bring a total of about $600,000 a year.

Farmers also are being paid about $1,000 an acre per year for land leases, compared with about $300 they could get by leasing the land for crops.

Still, some residents have expressed concern about noise, electromagnetic interference and the appearance of the project, and the county is committed to hearing them, Wehmeier said. The board’s Executive Committee will meet Oct. 30 to review the Joint Development Agreement.

In other action Tuesday:

  • Wehmeier said the county is moving forward on its plan to increase broadband Internet access for all citizens. The county’s Broadband Working Group will continue to court private partners and will compete vigorously for $22 million in broadband grants available in next year’s state budget, he said.
  • The board rejected two citizens’ claims for vehicle damage, one for $543.99 caused by loose gravel and another for $388.85 caused by a rock that fell from a county dump truck.

Whitewater city budget up 2.5%

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

The Whitewater Common Council on Tuesday got its first look at a 2020 city budget that proposes $9,865,236 in spending, up 2.5 percent from 2019.

Because the state is falling behind in sharing revenue from income taxes, local property-tax payers will have to shoulder more of that burden – about 40 percent in 2020. That’s higher than in previous years, and the proportion may go even higher in the future, City Manager Cameron Clapper said.

“Our residents over time will be asked to contribute more and more” toward the city budget, Clapper told council members.

Property taxes are levied on about $697 million worth of residential, commercial and industrial property in the city. The tax levy has been rising about 3 percent a year in recent years, Clapper said.

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is exempt from property taxes but makes a local payment in lieu of taxes in exchange for city services. That amount has not been determined yet, Clapper said.

Public safety is the biggest spending item in the budget at 36 percent, followed by general government at 15 percent.

Higher costs for 2020 will include a $60,000 boost in health-insurance premiums for city workers. The city will try to lower its workers’ compensation costs, which are running higher than in other cities of comparable size, Clapper said.

Whitewater city taxes make up about 25 to 28 percent of each local property-tax bill. The rest goes to Walworth County or Jefferson County government, the Whitewater Unified School District and technical colleges.

The council’s Finance Committee will review and possibly revise the budget at meetings Oct. 10, 17, 22 and Oct. 24 if needed. Final presentation to the Common Council will be Nov. 5. A public hearing and adoption of the budget are scheduled for Nov. 19.

Changes for schools

In other business, the council heard about developments stemming from the possible breakup of the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.

On July 1, the Palmyra-Eagle School Board voted to dissolve the district following a failed April referendum to raise taxes to pay for operating costs.

The Whitewater Unified School District and six other districts border the P-E district. If the district is broken up, its students, taxable properties, debts and facilities will be distributed among the neighboring districts.

Depending on the changes, the boundaries of the WUSD may or may not be redrawn. “At this time, we can only speculate what will happen,” a document from the Whitewater district says.

A non-binding advisory referendum in November will ask P-E district residents whether they want to keep the school district running at current, lower funding levels. But it is more likely that a state appeal board will decide by Jan. 15 to break up the P-E district, said Matthew Sylvester-Knudtson, the Whitewater district’s director of business services.

The School District Boundary Appeal Board is assembled by the state Department of Public Instruction and does not include representation from the Palmyra-Eagle district or its neighbors, Sylvester-Knudtson said.

He and Mark Elworthy, district administrator for WUSD, said the Whitewater school district already is looking at contingency plans. If the P-E district is broken up, the changes would be effective next July. Neighboring districts would have just a few weeks to prepare for a reshuffling of pupils, debt obligations, tax records and school buildings before the start of the new school year, they said.

In other business Tuesday:

  • The Common Council agreed to schedule a future agenda item on placement of old cars and other unsightly items in yards and driveways. The action came after council member James Allen complained that by simply throwing tarps over cars, residents of one east side neighborhood apparently had bypassed city codes regulating junk vehicles. “This isn’t covered by ordinance,” so neighbors “have been looking at one car for 20 years,” Allen said.
  • The council approved a proclamation commending the CROP Walk against hunger on Sunday, Oct. 6, and urged citizens to participate. Part of the proceeds go to the Whitewater Food Pantry.
  • Clapper told council members that the city is seeking citizen volunteers for a “Complete Count Committee” to help assure that every local resident is counted during the 2020 U.S. Census. A full count will ensure that the city gets its fair share of federal and state revenues, he said.
  • The council approved a six-year assessment contract with Accurate Assessors of Menasha, amounting to $237,000 over six years.
  • The council awarded a $130,120 contract to Northern Pipe Inc. for Starin Road culvert joint sealing.