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.

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