Following nearly three hours of debate and discussion Tuesday evening, the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance by a vote of 11-7; enacting a $20 annual vehicle registration fee for all county residents who own passenger cars or trucks. The measure came to the board as a means of offsetting an estimated $600,000 county budget shortfall.
Another key budget savings item discussed Tuesday evening, was that of the elimination of positions within the Lincoln County UW-Extension office. Coming forth as a recommendation from the county’s Finance & Insurance Committee, the measure called for the elimination of all positions within the Extension office, except for the 4H Youth Development Educator position; entailing a $65,000 savings.
As part of a financial overview from county Finance Director Dan Leydet, he indicated the county’s intent is to continue retaining and maintaining current programming and staffing levels as has been done historically.
However, Leydet also stated, due to current budget circumstances, consideration has been given to the filling or elimination of other positions within the county, once they have been vacated such as positions within the personnel department for example.
According to Leydet, the vehicle registration fee would significantly offset the estimated $600,000 shortfall and would entail a yearly consideration from the county board to continue or discontinue the tax. However, discontinuance of the vehicle registration fee would result in an estimated $530,000 deficit.
“We are done cutting the fat out of the budget,” Leydet stated. “We are very thin in some areas and too thin in other areas. If we don’t increase our revenue, we will have to cut our expenditures. That’s how we came to the UW Extension cuts. If the board were to decide to not pursue the fee in the future, the board will have to do something to make up for that $530,000 loss.”
Leydet further advised Supervisors; any discussion of budgetary items and/or any subsequent voting Tuesday night would not be final, but rather advisory to the Finance & Insurance Committee. The committee will then consider board recommendations and bring forth any further budget recommendations in the future.
Both discussion items prompted debate from supervisors, both in favor and opposed.
Prior to board discussion, three county residents took the floor; speaking in opposition to the proposed UW-Extension Office reductions.
District 5 Supervisor Frank Saal, who is also a member of the Finance & Insurance Committee, spoke in favor of the vehicle registration fee.
As part of his statement to the board, Saal indicated what he deemed a long-standing period of county financial stability, since he took office on the county board in the 1990s.
“But that’s not the case anymore,” he stated. “As a board, we now have three options; spend less, tax more or stay on the tracks until the train hits us. If we decide to tax more, the vehicle registration tax is an available option. If we spend less, losing one or two (county staff) positions won’t be enough. The finance committee is sorting between wants and needs. People losing jobs means more money freed up, but those are painful decisions to make. I just want you to know, to fix this problem we have to spend less.”
District 2 supervisor and chairman of the Finance & Insurance Committee Robert Weaver took responsibility for the discussion of UW-Extension Office reductions.
Following public comment, Weaver readily admitted the challenge of suggesting such a reduction, but advised the recommendation was made strictly as a means of cost savings, and is by no means a reflection of poor services from the UW-Extension Office.
“This is not about the services,” he said. “It’s about making the cut. We’re willing to work with the UW, but this is the difficulty we face with this decision. This goes well beyond generalities.”
No official advisory decision or vote was cast in favor, or in opposition, of the UW-Extension reductions Tuesday evening. As indicated by Finance Director Leydet, the board will be tasked with approving a preliminary budget next month.
Regarding the vehicle registration fee Tuesday evening, 10th District Supervisor Loretta Baughan sought to table the matter for consideration at the October meeting of the board; citing a need for county residents to weigh in on the matter.
Weaver and 11th District Supervisor Hans Breitenmoser countered, citing a relatively narrow time window of two months for a county budget to be finalized.
Baughan also cited concerns over the affordability of the $20 annual fee, indicating a burden placed on single parents and county residents on fixed incomes.
“This is not a one-time deal. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no stuffing it back in as we become dependent on it,” she stated. “Granted, it’s difficult to pick and choose items like this, I believe the best solution is to direct each county department and its oversight committee to meet for the purpose of deciding reductions to this budget,”
Breitenmoser spoke in favor of the fee.
“I admit, passing a vehicle registration fee is not easy to do, but I believe it is the lesser of two evils,” he stated. “Not because we want to, but because we have to. We have services to provide which do our county good, and benefit our county. I don’t consider these services ‘wants.’ In a civilized society, if we want to have roads and be safe, we have to pay for it. From a principle standpoint, I’m not a fan of the registration fee. But as un-palatable as it seems, we must move forward. The fiscally responsible thing to do for the county would be to move forward with the registration fee.”
As part of discussion, Supervisor Baughan requested an evaluation from Leydet of an equal budget decrease from all county departments receiving tax levy funding; to account for the $600,000 shortfall.
Following a brief recess, Leydet advised to account for the shortfall, each department would be required to reduce their respective budgets by 4.2%.
As part of Leydet’s projections, some county departments would be faced with higher reductions than others.
For example, a 4.2% budgetary decrease to the County Register of Deeds would see a reduction of $483.50, while the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office would see a reduction of $259,509.43.
When asked by supervisors of the impact of such a prospective reduction, Lincoln County Sheriff Jeff Jaeger advised the board that the impact would result in cutting a minimum of four staff positions; either from the jail or patrol divisions.
“If I had to cut jail staff, that would mean a loss of our jail housing out-of-county inmates with an estimated loss of $800,000 per year,” he stated. “If I had to cut patrol or overtime, that could mean a single deputy covering an entire patrol area.”
Baughan’s motion directing county departments and their respective oversight committees to meet within 10 days, to make a budget cut of 4.2% from each and every department receiving tax levy funding, was defeated by a vote of 17-3 (Baughan, District 9 Supervisor Bill Zeitz and District 13 Supervisors Kirby Crosby voting in favor).
District 12 Supervisor Paul Gilk also spoke in favor of the vehicle reg. fee, requesting an additional fee of $5 or $10 for All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV). However, County Corporation Counsel Nancy Bergstrom advised state statutes have very specific language exempting ATVs from such a tax. According to Bergstrom, the statute applies only to automobiles and ‘motor trucks’.
Gilk recommended two separate motions; requesting an increase of the registration fee from $20 to $25 (defeated by 12-6 vote) and a raise to $23 increase (also defeated by 12-6 vote).
In other action Tuesday, the board unanimously approved a petition from the City of Merrill for Right of Way of a small portion of CTH G. Lincoln County Administrative Coordinator Randy Scholz advised the county would maintain ownership of the road, but approving the petition would allow the city to move forward with purchase and development of nearby property.
Mayor Bill Bialecki-who also serves as 1st District Supervisor- abstained from voting on the measure, but did advise the property would be purchased for development of a future industrial park.
The measure will now proceed to the city’s Board of Public Works and City Plan Commission for approval. Upon approval by those committees, the purchase will then come back to the Common Council for final approval at their October meeting.