The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors is seeking to get a huge jump on the budgeting process for 2012 by instructing department heads to formulate contingency budgets reflecting five, 10 and 15 percent reduction in tax levies. The board also established a goal of a zero percent increase in tax levies as a starting point for next year’s budget.
The contingency approach is similar to that taken by the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education, which has utilized a multi-tier approach to budget cuts the past two years.
The supervisors voted on the unique approach at their January meeting held last Tuesday, citing uncertainty in revenue coming from the state government in the next biannual budget. It also is the earliest the supervisors have addressed budget concerns in recent years.
“We won’t know the exact ramifications (of state budget cuts) on the county level until later, possibly not until September,” said Finance Director Dan Leydet.
The board approved a timeline that will get more detailed budget information in the hands of individual supervisors earlier in the process. At the November meeting when the current budget was approved, some supervisors stated they felt that they were presented with a “take it or leave it” document. Several items were identified for possible elimination, only to be kept in the budget because the full financial impact of the reductions couldn’t be quickly identified at that meeting.
Under the plan the board approved, a preliminary budget review will be held in May, with additional budget discussions set for June or August after the state legislature has approved the biannual budget. Another budget review will take place by the board at the end of August and a final review draft for board input in October. The final hearing held on the 2011 budget will be on Nov. 8.
In laying out the proposed timeline, Leydet said it would give the county board the maximum input on the final budget much earlier in the process. He said this was a change of perception from where the board felt it could only react to budget requests from the departments.
“This way, you set the target and the departments have to decide how to provide services with the funds available,” he said.
County Board Chairman Bob Lussow agreed that this gave the individual supervisors ample opportunity to have input on the overall budget.
“Speak up, ladies and gentlemen, this is your chance,” Lussow said.
In the ensuing discussion, the supervisors were pretty much in agreement to not seek any increase in the tax levy, even if the legislature gives them the approval to do so. Leydet said that new Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has indicated he is leaning toward no allowable increases.
It was pointed out that although the board may pass a budget that calls for zero increases in tax levies, that doesn’t mean the tax bills may not still see increases caused by factors outside the board’s control.
Leydet said that some departments that rely heavily on state revenue may have to anticipate receiving less in the next biannual budget. He said those departments are being urged to plan for reductions now.
On the subject of planning contingency budgets, many of the supervisors thought this was also a good idea, even though it made more work for the department heads. It was stated that department heads need to break the habit they have of asking for several large ticket items, only to settle for only those items they really wanted in the first place.
“This is in case the worst happens, or worse than that or even worser that that,” Lussow said to laughs from the board.
Every department oversight committee would be responsible for building the budget plans and deciding when and how to trigger the various cuts.
“This way, some of the hard work will already be done,” said Corporation Counsel Nancy Bergstrom. “It will force some of the really hard conversations earlier.”
In the end, the board approved the overall plan as well as setting an operating levy increase of zero percent.
The supervisors also approved a plan to start the process for expanding the current landfill in order to extend its useful life 15-20 years and its overall capacity to 1 million tons. As it currently stands, the landfill has less than five years of useful life left.
The Solid Waste Committee studied the pros and cons of closing the landfill in 2014 and either building a new one or setting up a transfer station for moving waste to another landfill. The projected revenue that expanding the current operation onto nearby land the county already owns proved to be the deciding factor.
The county already has an existing fund to cover closure costs and to provide a long term care fund to handle monitoring the landfill once it is closed. While some of the money in that fund would be needed to cover expansion costs, the majority will be kept to still pay for those costs in 2037, when the expanded landfill would close.