Dane County Board Weighing Budget Priorities

October 29, 2010
Supervisor Robin Schmidt (576-1161) Supervisor Cynda Solberg (212-4982)
County Board


After more than 350 people appeared before county supervisors to protest budget cuts in next year’s proposed $500 million budget, Dane County supervisors said last week the outcry shows the difficulty of the choices they’ll have to make this year on spending and taxes.


With a less than a month to go before supervisors put their final stamp on the budget for next year, supervisors noted that the choices keep getting more difficult as more challenges surface, and as protests over cuts mount.


“We have a responsibility to taxpayers to produce a budget that is fiscally responsible so that we’re meeting people’s needs without putting even more pressure on taxpayers in this difficult economic time, ‘’ said Sup. Robin Schmidt, who represents Monona, a city with a large senior population living on fixed incomes.


“We’re right in the middle of this with some big decisions ahead of us,’’ said Sup. Cynda Solberg, who represents the towns of Cottage Grove and Pleasant Springs as well as several neighborhoods on Stoughton’s north side. “We face very tough choices – and they won’t get any easier. I’m not sure yet what we’ll do. ‘’


The top concern at the supervisors’ public hearing last week – which is a formal part of the budget process – is a $400,000 proposed cut for services for the developmentally disabled that drew over 300 protesters.  While the cut itself is only a small part of the county’s roughly $250 million human services budget, the cut also results in the loss of $500,000 in federal money – and a $900,000 cut would be enormous for one program, both Schmidt and Solberg noted.


That’s just one of the “tough choices,’’ they noted. The debates over the next four weeks will be over dozens of programs large and small – and over the taxes needed to pay for them. Some of those debates will include:


*       One-time money.  The current budget counts on $4.3 million in income from one-time payments or proceeds from selling county property. Both Schmidt and Solberg noted that the county shouldn’t count on money it doesn’t yet have.  Sometimes that money doesn’t arrive, forcing emergency cuts elsewhere.  And because it’s “one-time’’ money, it only makes it more difficult to balance the budget in future years. But if one-time money isn’t used to balance the budget, that hole would have to be filled by cuts in other areas or taxes, they noted.


*      Reserves. The county’s financial reserve is very small, which has contributed to the drop in the county’s bond rating. Schmidt and Solberg noted it is only prudent to rebuild those reserves as one step in restoring the county’s bond rating. But with so many tough choices, this may not be the year to do it, Solberg added.


*      Public safety. A recent staffing study concluded the Dane County Sheriff’s department’s budget could be cut $1.8 million, including reducing rural deputy patrols by 20 percent.  Schmidt highlights that the current budget calls for some cuts – but not a reduction in rural patrols.


*     Borrowing.  While borrowing to purchase large items won’t affect next year’s spending budget, the debate over how much to borrow – and for what – frequently sparks heated debate. The county pays about $8 million in debt service, money that could otherwise be used for programs, Solberg noted.


*      Taxes. The proposed budget calls for a 3.34 percent  increase in property taxes – or 18 cents per $1,000 of property value that would result in a county property tax increase of $45 on a $250,000 home.  Every penny increase in the county tax rate costs the taxpayer with a $250,000 home $2.50, and raises about $487,000 in revenue for county programs.


“The county portion of the tax bill is very small compared to schools, it is still important for us to do everything we can to put the emphasis on reducing spending and minimize tax increases,’’ Schmidt said. 


With almost three-fourths of the budget devoted to human services and public safety, there are very few easy places to cut, Solberg added.  “We have a long way to go before final decisions are made.’’ 


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