Oconto County board OK’s $46.7M budget

Hamann: ‘The rainy day is here, folks’
Warren Bluhm
Oconto County Times Herald News Editor

The Oconto County Board retained the same level of services in its 2021 budget by taking more than $2 million from its “savings account,” an action that can’t be repeated often, officials warned.

The board adopted the $46.7 million budget by a unanimous vote Oct. 29, representing a 5.2% increase in expenditures over the 2020 budget. The property tax levy of $20.8 million is a 1.5% increase, mainly due to new construction, Administrative Coordinator Kevin Hamann told the board.

The headline should be that the tax rate will go down 2.1% to $4.91 per $1,000 of equalized value, he added.

For the most part the budget meets the guidelines the board established at the start of the process this summer, except for setting at zero the amount of fund balance — the county’s reserve fund — to be applied to next year’s spending, Hamann said.

“Over the last two years, our undesignated fund balance has increased by $2.9 million, so we’re using pretty much what we saved the last two years to balance next year’s budget,” he said. ”You probably could do that for another year, but this board is going to have some tough decisions if this continues especially in terms of lost revenue, if we don’t see interest rates go up, if we don’t see timber sales or tax deed sales.”

The fund balance is built up specifically to stabilize the budget year by year, essentially “saving for a rainy day,” Hamann said. “The rainy day is here, folks.”

Among significant budget highlights:

• A $950,000 increase in the use of the highway department fund balance for equipment and building repairs, and a $500,000 increase in a transfer from the general fund for equipment replacements.

Supervisor Rose Stellmacher asked why the $2.45 million in equipment purchases weren’t split up over two or more years, and members of the finance and highway committees explained that the original request was already spread over three years.

“For the past about 15 years, we’ve been allocating $700,000 for equipment replacement. Highway probably should be spending $1.5 million to $2 million every year,” Hamann said. “We haven’t been keeping up. … There’s equipment that’s 25 to 30 years old that just needs to be replaced.”

“We did split this up into more than one year,” Supervisor Gary Frank said. “We didn’t catch ‘em all up this year and give them $5, $7 million now. We split it up over several years, and so this amount will be on the budget next year and the following year.”

The highway committee will be talking this month about how to change the procedure to provide more money in the long term and avoid increases of this size, Supervisor Alan Sleeter said.

Supervisor Gregory Sekela said the new equipment will allow the highway department to increase the number of miles the county can repave next year, about 16 miles compared with 11 or 12 miles in 2020.

• A $94,000 increase to cover the salary and benefits of one additional deputy, which will enable Sheriff Todd Skarban to schedule five deputies per shift, Hamann said.

• A $27,000 increase in library costs, with $9,000 going to local libraries and $18,000 to pay the Brown County library system for checkouts made by Oconto County residents.

The number of checkouts has remained about the same but Brown County increased its cost per checkout, Hamann said, adding that it remains more cost-effective to pay Brown County than to build a library in southern Oconto County, where most of the checkouts originate.

• A decrease of $63,000 in highway department spending due to fewer bridge aid projects.

• A decrease of $51,000 in the county clerk’s office because of fewer elections next year.

• A decrease of $23,000 because the Extension agriculture agent position is now being shared with Marinette County.

• Capital project purchases amount to $2.38 million — including $1.5 million for the first half of a radio system upgrade, $300,000 for highway equipment replacement, $200,000 for sheriff vehicle replacement, $185,000 for computer and related equipment, $100,000 for land acquisition, $70,000 for vehicle leases and $25,000 for chimney repairs at the Beyer Home Museum.

• The contingency fund is budgeted at $500,000, double last year’s contingency, in part because public safety wage and salary increases for 2021 are still being negotiated.

Hamann said of the $491 per $100,000 of equalized value that property owners will be charged, $168.30 will go to the sheriff’s department, $100.63 to highways and $93.67 to health and human services — the three biggest departments.

Among the less expensive departments for that $100,000 homeowner are $5.21 to pay all county board expenses, $3.82 to cover the veterans service office and $1.24 to cover the county’s share of the Oconto Airport. The forestry, parks and recreation department actually returns 31 cents per $100,000 to the taxpayer, and the register of deeds office gives back $1.12.

“This list helps people understand what they get back for their tax dollars,” Hamann said. “I think they get a pretty good deal for what they pay.”

The board also approved the long-term capital improvement plan, which amounts to $11.565 million over the next five years. Only the $4.53 million for 2021 is actually committed now, Hamann emphasized.

“This is just a wish list,” he said. “It will change.”