Marathon County passes budget with far fewer fireworks than last year
Much fewer amendments, and no controversial amendments passed
Marathon County took a hard look at the way it handled its budget process after last year.
Why? Because last year’s budget meeting of the Marathon County Board took more than four hours and included the potential for 19 amendments. And many of the board’s 38 supervisors (the largest county board in the country) had things to say about those amendments.
By comparison, this year’s budget meeting was a quiet affair. Only a handful of amendments were passed or even considered, and of those most involved ARPA (American Rescue Plan) funds and thus didn’t impact the budget.
As I said to someone recently at a social event, you don’t have to care about budgets until you need to care about budgets. Many years they’re just not that interesting. But when A) budgets include tax increases, or B) competing interests/ideologies conflict on the budget, that’s when they become interesting and worth keeping an eye on.
How the budget went
Library: First off, one of the most controversial potential amendments was never introduced. Supervisor David Baker’s proposed amendment to the library’s funding, which would have reduced the increase (The library’s director disputes that characterization by accounting for last year’s decrease) from 12% to roughly 6%, never came up. Numerous people attended the board’s education meeting to complain about the amendment.
Social Improvement fund reallocation: This amendment, also proposed by Baker, would have essentially taken $1.5 million from the Social Improvement Fund and used it to pay off debt, replacing money from the levy toward that refunding. More conservative members of the board said this was fiscally responsible, helping offer taxpayers more relief. (The levy increased this year, but the tax rate declined.)
But not everyone was on board with this, including more moderate conservative voices on the board. Craig McEwen pointed out that the reserves might need to be tapped into temporarily for the Forensic Science Center (county morgue) projects while the county waits for federal dollars to arrive (and not being able to cover that shortfall in the meantime could put $8 million of foundation and state dollars in jeopardy). And Board Chair Kurt Gibbs looked at the debt interest rate versus the investment income rate from those funds. The average debt interest rate right now is 2.5%, but the investment return is more than 5%. The county would be losing money by paying off the debt, he says.
A fair argument was made that counties (and government bodies in general) are not supposed to tax in order to hold surpluses. Which is true. But, county officials point out, the reason the Social Improvement Fund is kept at a high level is that the county is responsible for child placements, and some of those can get really expensive. The fund is necessary because the costs have a high potential for big variability.
The county board shot this one down.
Others that received little to no comment: The county approved roughly $600,000 for the jail kitchen project. The jail’s kitchen has been a bit of a fiasco, with county leaders trying to work with North Central Health Care to replace a private firm providing food in the jail. That turned into a disaster with NCHC struggling to perform that service with its limited workforce compared to what’s needed. It put a giant strain on the quasi-governmental health care provider.
It also approved funding for a training resource center for the Sheriff’s Office, also through ARPA. ($1.6 million); $36,000 for necessary repairs to Eau Claire Dells (through ARPA); nearly $400,000 for improvements to East Gate Hall (again, ARPA); $500,000 to fix a bridge on Highway N that’s fallen into dangerous levels of disrepair (you guessed it, ARPA); and provisions money spent toward consolidating county services around North Central Health Care campus on the appraisal and sale of vacated county building.
The last one changed a bit in wording. While it initially called for the immediate sale of those properties to the highest offer, now it sends those sales terms to the county board for approval.
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