The Lincoln County Highway Committee met last Thursday in Tomahawk to explore which of the three options it would recommend to the full County Board to generate much needed funds to allow the highway department to properly maintain county roads.
In the end, the four members present felt they didn’t have a full grasp on the county’s finances to make an informed decision. To get that information, they called a special joint meeting with the Finance Committee Monday afternoon.
At Thursday’s meeting, the three options – a referendum to increase the tax levy, a wheel tax or having the board find the needed money in the county budget – were discussed.
Bob Lee, committee chairman, said of the three options, none would prove popular with taxpayers. Lee said the wheel tax would be unfair to those families with more than one car while the tax increase, while fairer overall, would be a tough sell to the voters who would have to approve it.
“I can tell you, in my household, there would be at least one vote against it,” he said.
All the members said that the last option would be difficult as other departments are also cutting their budgets because tax revenue is down because of the weakened economy. Some cited departments that were bigger drains on the county budget but wouldn’t be slashed or eliminated because of the uproar from the voters doing so would cause.
Also complicating the decision was the uncertainty of just how much money remains in the county’s fund in designated and undesignated funds. Because of these questions, the options were referred to the joint meeting so finance director Dan Leydet could be on hand to answer them.
On Monday, Leydet explained that while there may be money in the county fund to cover the $750,000 the highway department needs each year for road maintenance, there are expenses the county faces in the near future that will eat much of that up. Over the next five years, the county will have to contribute $3.5 million to bring its social services departments into the state-mandated Family Care system. In addition, the landfill is within five years of needing to be replaced to name just a couple of these expenses.
Finance Committee Chairman Dick Simon said it will eventually come down to a choice between roads and other services the county provides.
“You can’t go out and borrow $750,000 this year for roads and $1.5 million next year,” Simon said. “Pretty soon you are just paying for the roads.”
It quickly became apparent that all county departments, not just the highway department, will have to face some tough choices in the next few years if the economy doesn’t improve.
“It’s not just a matter of doing the roads, but are we going to keep doing the roads the same way,” said interim County Administrative Coordinator Tim Meehan.
Lee cited increased accidents caused by poor roads would drive up ambulance runs and insurance claims against the county, costing more in the long run.
While two people taking early retirement from the highway department have freed up $70,000 each in salary and fringe benefits, and three more positions are being examined for possible elimination, these steps won’t make up all the money that is needed.
“I think there is no way that these three (extra) positions will make the problems in the highway department go away,” said Graham Rankin.
Scholz said that when positions are eliminated, equipment that is no longer needed by those positions is also sold.
“We have been getting rid of everything,” Scholz said. “We have been going to the junkyard for parts for the plows.”
Another option the two committees examined to cut highway department costs would be to eliminate services to the townships. Such cuts in highway services have met with resistance from the full county board when they have come up in the past.
It was then discussed that instead of looking at just the highway department budget for cuts that the supervisors should meet in a series of special meetings moderated by Art Lerch of the UW-Extension to go through every department’s budget to see what can be eliminated or combined with other departments. Simon said such an approach helped the building committee recently. The consensus was that going to the voters with a referendum before taking such a step would be shot down at the polls.
County Board Chair Bob Lussow said he had no objection to calling such a series of special meetings. He did say, however, that he would push to have the supervisors share in the pain the departments are feeling by doing so with no per diem or mileage reimbursement.
“But something needs to come out of this,” Lussow said. “In the past the board has lacked the political will to take the necessary action.”