JEFFERSON — It’s early in the ballgame, but as it was proposed on the first day of finance committee budget hearings in Jefferson County for 2022 Monday, it appears that taxpayers could see a 21-cent decrease in their tax rate per $1,000 of equalized valuation from the current year.
In November of 2020, the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a countywide tax levy of $29,051,683 for 2021, which brought with it a tax rate of $3.73. In 2020, the countywide levy was $28,045,222 with a general operations tax rate of $3.80. The levy as it is proposed for 2022 would be $29,292,371, an increase of $240,688.
Among the major reasons for the proposed decrease in the tax rate has been an increase in the equalized valuation of property in the county.
Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier reminded finance committee members that this is the ninth budgeting process he has been involved with in his almost decade-long tenure with the county. Wehmeier said it was hard for him to believe it’s been that long.
One thing county department heads and others in the budgeting process for the county have working in their favor that past administrations may not have had, is they get started earlier in the year. They are also known for negotiating and trying hard to cooperate, and this has led to less controversial and abrasive budgeting hearings each September, because most sticking points have been worked out earlier.
In providing his annual overview of the coming year’s budget Monday morning, Wehmeier began by offering his thoughts on how the county might view its budget development and what factors enter into it.
“Why do we do the work we do and why don’t we do certain work?” He asked. “Who do we serve? How do we serve? What has changed? What are trends? What are the outcomes we wish to achieve and who do we want to be?”
He said these are important policy questions that allow the county to build a business plan.
Wehmeier said the county has many stakeholders with whom it deals and each program serves somebody.
“And it’s important to remember who (the stakeholders) are,” Wehmeier said, adding it is important for budget-makers to find areas in which they can “flex and change” to keep abreast of trends that come to the county — especially in the age of COVID-19. He added that the needs of the human services department and its programming are ever-changing and require much flexibility on the part of managers and, in turn, budget makers.
As Wehmeier called the version of one year ago, the county budget as it is proposed for 2022 is, “a budget in transition.” He said there are great opportunities out there for the county economically, but also many challenges to keep things “sustainable.”
“We need to remain COVID-19 vigilant. We have to have an ongoing recovery. How do we prepare for recovery operations?” He said.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of the budget, Wehmeier said state shared revenues to the county will again remain at status-quo. He said he did not believe they have increased in the nine years he has been working on the Jefferson County budget.
The county’s interest on property taxes it is owed continues to shrink, but Wehmeier said that is good in the big scheme of things.
“It means that people can afford to pay their taxes,” he said.
Contingency plans and insurances look sufficient, according to county officials, as the unknowns of the pandemic and increased threat to cyber security rear their heads.
Wehmeier said local governments are being increasingly viewed as prime targets for hackers and the county is continually working to shore up defenses against these threats. Finance Director Marc DeVries added local governments are viewed as softer targets for cyber hackers than are private sector businesses.
“Governments are perceived to have deeper pockets,” he said as the discussion turned to how the county and other governments might have to pay substantially in the future for insurance against cyber attacks.
“We hire people to try to get into our systems,” Wehmeier said, addressing testing the county performs. “I’m not afraid of saying that.”
Amy Rinard of the finance committee pointed out that it is difficult to quantify just how devastating a cyber attack on the county would be and Wehmeier said it is getting more expensive every day to find protection against these potentially devastating intrusions.
Discussing county investments, DeVries said the county is investing more in short-term options with lower yields, but this keeps finances more available for when the market opens up to better investment opportunities.
One of the proposed budget items that could draw the public’s attention is one to substantially increase compensation for county board members.
The executive committee made a recommendation for increases in board members’ monthly salaries from $55 to $110. Per diems could increase from $55 to $65. The impact of this for 2022 would be about $25,000, with an annual total increase of $34,000. These changes, if approved, would have to take effect after elections.
Conor Nelan of the finance committee and county board, and Rinard, said these are all reasonable increases in compensation and would more fairly pay future supervisors. Finance committee members said that no one serves on the board for the money. They made it clear that it is a job they do because they care about the communities of Jefferson County and their constituents.
Discussing countywide personnel adjustments, Wehmeier said labor markets are shifting quickly and the county is not immune. He said it is impacted by this at every level and attention is being paid to staff retention and recruitment.
There is a 9.9% increase in insurance proposed for employees, with staffers paying an additional 1% of premium, a slight reduction in HSA contribution and other growing challenges.
Small staffing additions are planned in departments including the treatment courts. Proposed is the creation of a facilities director position for all buildings, addition of a legal assistant and Assistant District Attorney for one year with funding, addition of an intern in economic development, a management information systems “help desk” staff member, parks staff, a sheriff’s dispatcher, UW-Extension intern, veteran’s service officer benefits specialist and zoning department intern.
In the health department, a few key positions are expected to be changing hands with retirements and the county is keeping an eye on how those people might be replaced. There could be the addition of LPNs, as well. Changes are slated for the human services department in terms of its staffing.
Operational capital for the highway department will include trucks and plow equipment costing $2.075 million, specialty trucks at $350,000, support equipment at $250,000 and small trucks at $250,000. Sheriff’s department vehicles could cost $327,220.
In 2022, County Highway A is scheduled for rehabilitation work from State Highway 106 to Lake Mills. County Highway S is also scheduled for work from County Highway A to Highway B. The cost of the Highway A project is $3.2 million and the work on Highway S is budgeted at $1 million. Work on both includes resurfacing.
Following board study and a public hearing in October, the Jefferson County budget is traditionally approved in November each year.