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Cuts expected in next county budget

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published April 18, 2007, 10:05 a.m.) Click for audio report

Walworth County department heads will need to trim about $3.67 million from next year's budget to meet levy increase guidelines set by the board at Tuesday night's monthly meeting.

Without any cuts, Walworth County was heading for a $58.4 million levy, about 11.87 percent more than the $52.2 million needed in 2007, according to the first budget projections.

With a 17-8 vote, the board approved a levy increase of no more than 4.84 percent, which follows the county's "self-imposed" cap that takes into account the value of new construction combined with inflation rates. The 2007 levy went up about 6.18 percent from 2006.

The original outlook a year ago was close to 10 percent. Late in the budget process, department heads and supervisors trimmed more than $1 million from the budget to reach the 6.18 percent increase.

To meet the self-imposed cap, the board will need to levy $54.77 million in 2008. That could mean cuts in staff and programs, County Administrator David Bretl warned.

"These figures are preliminary, although they provide a general direction of what the picture is probably going to look like," Bretl said.

Driving a large portion of the budget increase is a $9.6 million budget for the county's special education program, or 20.35 percent more than this year. About $587,000 of the 2008 special education budget is the first payment for a new $19 million Lakeland School.

The special education budget could go down later in the year if more in-district educators currently on county payrolls are hired by local school districts as part of the plan to shift some special education costs to the local districts, budget analyst Stacy Johnson said. School districts are on a different budget calendar than the county so those costs couldn't be estimated in the early projections.

Motions by Supervisor Rick Stacey for a 0-percent and a 2.4-percent increase failed.

"We have to focus on spending, and now is the time," Stacey said, supporting his amendments.

Other supervisors said the 4.84 percent levy increase, which would have a county property tax of $4.06 per $1,000 of equalized value, allows the county to continue to have services residents want.

"You can't say on one hand, 'I want a new school at $18 million,' and then on the other hand say, 'I want a 0 percent tax increase,'" Supervisor Joyce Ketchpaw said. "I was asking the 0 percent people what they wanted to cut. These are significant cuts Dave (Bretl) has to find."

Ketchpaw said county citizens have expressed a desire to keep non-mandated services that are expensive, but worthwhile, such as a special education school and a nursing home.

Supervisor Margaret Downing agreed.

"She's nailing it right on the head. We want certain services and we have to pay for certain services," Downing said.

Supervisor Jerry Grant wondered how the county would run with cutting more than $3 million.

"I think we need to fulfill our needs," he said. "We're not going to do it at 0 percent. I question if we can do it at 4.8 percent. We can't stop raising our taxes because of what other areas are doing, schools and so fourth. They've got needs and have to fulfill them, that's true. We've also got needs that need to be fulfilled."

The proposed levy increase does not necessarily equate to an increase on residents' tax bills. Because of increasing equalized value and new construction in the county, the tax rate would actually decrease about 4 cents, according to the early projections.

2008 Preliminary Budget

Total budget:

2007: $146.8 million

2008: $150.6 million

Percent increase: 2.52 percent

Total tax levy:

2007: $52.2 million

2008: $54.8 million

Percent increase: 4.84 percent

Average total mill rate

This year: $4.10

Next year: $4.06

Percent decrease: 0.97 percent

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