Sauk County Board to consider $96M budget Tuesday

November 11, 2018

Supervisor Scott Von Asten of Baraboo speaks during a board meeting in April 2017.

The Sauk County Board is slated to consider next year’s $96 million county budget during a meeting Tuesday night in Baraboo.

Following a presentation from county administrative staff, the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the 2019 spending plan during a public hearing. The board will then take up regular business items before considering the budget.

The proposed $96 million in total spending would require $31.2 million from local property taxes. That’s a 0.6 percent increase from the prior year, the maximum increase allowed under state-imposed limits.

An increase in property values would allow the county to tax property owners at a lower rate to get that $31.2 million levy. Under the proposed budget, the county’s tax rate would decrease by 3.2 percent, to $4.53 per $1,000 of equalized assessed value.

That means the owner of a $181,500 home — the average residential property value within the county — would pay $822 in property taxes.

Reserve funds an issue

Tuesday night’s meeting is likely to include discussion of the county’s reserve accounts, as some supervisors have expressed worry over the amount of budgeted spending from county savings.

Freshman Supervisor Bryant Hazard of Baraboo, who has closely followed budget discussions in recent weeks, said he’s comfortable with the amount of reserve spending included in the budget.

“I don’t think we’re spending that much from reserves,” Hazard said. “I’m pretty satisfied with the budget overall.”

The 2019 budget includes $6.7 million in anticipated spending from the general fund. By comparison, the county budgeted to spend $4.9 million from that fund in 2018, and $4.2 million in 2017.

However, those budgeted amounts don’t tell the full story. Financial documents show that although the county budgets to spend down its reserves year after year, it typically ends up adding to them.

The county’s total fund balance grew from $57 million to $73.7 million, an increase of 29 percent, over a four-year period ending in 2017. That includes money earmarked for special purposes, as well as $40.9 million in unrestricted reserves known as the general fund.

The Government Finance Officers Association recommends that entities such as the county maintain a minimum unrestricted general fund balance of 17 percent — or two months — of that fund’s annual operating expenditures.

An auditor’s report provided to the board’s Finance Committee in September said the county’s unrestricted fund balance is equal to 113 percent of expenditures.

Amanda Blomberg of Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, the county’s auditing firm, told the committee that many entities have a percentage above the GFOA’s recommended minimum, but that Sauk County’s is “pretty high compared to a lot of like-sized counties.”

The county has its own financial policy that requires judicious use of fund balance — only for large, non-recurring or rarely recurring expenses. That has allowed the government to build a healthy reserve.

“The proposed use of fund balance spending complies with the county financial policy,” Sauk County Accounting Manager Lynn Horkan said in an email.

Parking lot funds questioned

The largest single general fund expense included in the proposed budget is $1.25 million for expansion of a parking lot at the county’s West Square office building in Baraboo.

The board’s Finance Committee voted this week in support of an amendment that — if approved Tuesday — would remove that item from the budget.

The amendment said there are no definite plans for the expansion, and the county should first explore alternative ways to help alleviate downtown Baraboo parking congestion. There are about 300 workers between the county’s two downtown buildings, but only 150 spaces in the lot.

Property and Insurance Committee chairman Scott Von Asten of Baraboo, who first proposed setting aside money for the parking lot expansion, said it doesn’t make sense to eliminate the line item.

Budgeting the funds doesn’t lock the county into spending them, he said. It simply allows the board to move forward with the expansion next year with a simple majority vote.

“I think that’s what a budget is for,” Von Asten said. “It’s a planning document.”

If funds for the lot expansion are removed Tuesday, but officials later decide the expansion is a good idea, it would require a two-thirds majority board vote next year to amend the budget.

Von Asten said he agrees with critics who say the downtown parking problem isn’t entirely the county’s fault. But he said it’s clear the lack of off-street parking for county employees adds to the congestion.

“We’re contributing to that problem,” Von Asten said. “So I’m focused on solving the part of the problem that we’re contributing to.”

Other budget items that may be debated Tuesday night include $60,000 for a water feature on the county courthouse lawn, $70,260 for a public health dental hygienist and $21,515 to restore an agricultural agent to full-time.

As with every budget meeting in recent years, there also is likely to be debate over the revenue from renting jail beds to outside agencies. The board has long struggled with the appropriate way to plan for that budget item.

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