Sluggish economy weighs on 2013 county budget
Walworth County’s 2013 budget process is under way. On Sept. 6, I released the first draft of next year’s spending plan known as the county administrator’s budget. The proposed budget freezes the overall tax levy at the 2012 level, which for the record, stands at $60.8 million. The proposal represents the second consecutive annual county levy freeze.
Each year I try to highlight a number of the themes that helped shape the proposed budget. My last column covered an important one, which is the county’s improving debt picture. In addition to retiring debt early again this year, the five-year capital plan calls for no new borrowing through 2018. Declining debt is good news, but it is only one of several themes underlying next year’s budget. Other important factors include:
-- Effects of poor economy. The sluggish national economy has had a three-fold impact on each county budget since 2009.
First, the economic downturn continues to stress taxpayers. Those not directly affected by the economy through the loss of employment have experienced a decrease in the value of their homes and investments. Equalized value, which represents the fair market value of all taxable property, dropped in Walworth County for the third consecutive year. A 3.6 percent decline in 2010 was followed by decreases of 1.1 percent and 6.6 percent in 2011 and 2012, respectively. All told, county property owners have lost $1.6 billion of equalized value since 2009. The lion’s share of the local tax burden falls on homeowners, and they are under stress. Our budget needs to reflect that fact.
A second impact of the poor economy relates directly to the county’s bottom line. We depend on revenues, associated with economic activity, to provide important services. Walworth County government receives one-half cent on purchases subject to the state sales tax. The county’s share of that tax, which stood at $8 million in 2008, dropped to $7 million in 2009 and has remained at that level since. In addition to the sales tax, the county receives fees for recording real estate documents and issuing zoning and sanitation permits. Both have dropped significantly in recent years. The number of real estate documents recorded by the register of deeds office actually peaked in 2003 and has been on the decline ever since. In 2012, we will record fewer than half the number of documents that we did in 2003.
A third impact of the poor economy relates to an increased need for county services. Caseloads within our human services department, for example, have increased as residents struggle with poverty-related issues.
-- Criminal justice initiatives. Another theme underlying next year’s budget relates to the high cost of incarcerating prisoners. Faced with the prospect of building or staffing a $10 million jail expansion in 2010, I asked for help from county leaders. A number of solutions emerged. This past year the sheriff implemented an electronic monitoring program for inmates who are eligible for work release. This will allow him to keep better track of inmates than he was able to under the traditional “Huber” program and will reduce food and staffing costs at the jail. The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee helped the effort, as well, by establishing a treatment court for drunken drivers. Breaking the cycle of alcohol abuse that leads to recidivism is a key goal of this program. The 2013 budget provides resources for criminal justice leaders to maintain these programs and pursue additional initiatives in the coming year. While reducing costs is important, it can’t come at the expense of public safety. The CJCC has been careful not to roll out new programs until the proper planning and training have taken place.
-- Public safety initiatives. It may be nostalgic to imagine a time when Sheriff Andy Taylor patrolled the streets of Mayberry without a sidearm. Unfortunately, times have changed and we can’t be oblivious to dangerous situations that seem to be occurring with greater frequency. The 2013 budget addresses a number of safety issues. In order to be proficient in their use of firearms, law enforcement officers need constant and realistic training. The 2013 administrator’s budget includes $1.5 million to renovate the county’s indoor and outdoor shooting ranges. Funds are also included for replacement of a tactical vehicle used by the sheriff’s SWAT team. Finally, $50,000 has been included to update security measures at the county’s judicial center.
The county board will spend the next six weeks or so modifying the budget that I presented to them. If you are interested in learning how your tax dollars will be spent next year, I would encourage you to get involved.
The budget letter that I wrote about in this column can be found online, on the county’s website, www.co.walworth.wi.us. Budget documents are updated throughout September and October to reflect board and committee changes and posted on the website, as well. Share your ideas with your county supervisor or attend our Oct. 30 public hearing on the budget. The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the government center in Elkhorn.