Levy increase moves to county board


(Published Sep. 29, 2006, 2:38 p.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

Walworth County's preliminary budget will go to the county board without the finance committee's endorsement for the first time in at least six years.

The finance committee Wednesday took its second look at the proposed budget, which calls for a 9.55 percent levy increase.

In May, on a 17-7 vote, the board directed Administrator David Bretl to limit any levy increase to 10 percent or less. The proposed budget does that, but it's still not enough for some finance committee members. Four of the seven finance members would not endorse the hike.

"I voted against the 10 percent increase in the budget levy," Board Chairwoman Ann Lohrmann said. "This is nearly that. I can't vote for this kind of increase."

Supervisors shouldn't be surprised by the figures and should be ready to answer to angry constituents over the potential increases on their tax bills, Lohrmann said. The impact taxpayers will feel is dependent upon whether their property was reassessed this year.

Much of the 2007 budget increase is for the county-provided special education services-a 35-percent hike-and rising healthcare costs that resulted in a 35 percent increase in premium costs for employees. The employee health-care budget will exceed $17.5 million.

Debt service, or money owed for capital expenditures, accounts for almost $9 million of the anticipated $54 million levy. Special education expenses total $8.6 million, according to county figures.

With those items hypothetically removed from the budget, the levy increase for all other county expenses would go up about 3 percent.

Finance chair Nancy Russell said the capital projects are for things the board supported at a time when it made sense.

"There was a very low interest rate climate, so that was a good thing," Russell said of several recent building projects. "We went into that with our eyes wide open so now we have this debt that has to be paid off.

"It will be paid off over time, but the citizens of Walworth County will benefit from it."

Russell said supervisors can justify the increase because of the extensive non-mandated services it provides, including special education, a skilled nursing facility and countywide zoning.

The special education budget should also reduce in the next decade as local school districts take over much of the special education costs.

Supervisor Rick Stacey said the budget negates six years of hard work to lower taxes and limit the levy increase to a self-imposed maximum.

"It's been thrown out here," Stacey said of the county exceeding its own spending limits. "In 2008 we could be as high as a 12 to 15 percent increase."

In April, Stacey proposed the county hold a referendum to see if taxpayers supported building a new school for children with disabilities. The proposal was voted down 12-9.

Stacey feels the $22 million school project will severely limit county operations in upcoming years.

"Why the referendum was introduced on the school was to get the public involved," Stacey said. "The public is now involved (with a movement) to downsize the board. I'm upset about a 10-percent increase. I believe the (12) people that voted against the referendum, it's their job to fix the budget."

The public hearing for the budget is set for Oct. 26. The county board won't take action on the budget until Nov. 13, the absolute latest changes can be made.

Minor changes

A few items were removed from the budget that lowered the levy somewhat.

The county will not give $10,000 to the Walworth County Housing Authority to assist the homeless in the area.

Also, an extra $97,000 was found in the preliminary budget due to a clerical error.

A proposal by Supervisor Dan Kilkenny to reduce the $100,000 appropriation to the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance by 30 percent failed.

Total budget:

2006 $138,170,517

2007 $147,913,306

Percent Increase: 7.05 percent

Total tax levy:

2006 $49,201,252

2007 $53,900,002

Percent Increase: 9.55 percent

Average total mill rate:

This year: $4.40

Next year: $4.24

Percent Decrease: 3.72 percent





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