Dunn County leaders and supervisors are gearing up for a sparse budget in 2020.
The possibility became more real at a Saturday budget workshop, where supervisors had to prioritize 19 county departments, ranking those that could fall prey first to budget cuts.
County administrator Paul Miller asked supervisors to complete the ranking because services might have to be cut in 2020. The county hit its tax levy limit in the 2019 budget.
“It’s not an extreme I want to go to, but neither do I want us to whistle past the graveyard,” Miller said. “We need to go into this with our eyes wide open.”
Supervisors picked several Dunn County departments as most urgent: the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, Circuit Court, Child Support Agency, Human Services, Public Works and Emergency Management and Communications are budget priorities.
Lowest-priority were UW-Extension, Environmental Services, the Medical Examiner’s Office, Veterans Services and the contributions to outside agencies, including the Menomonie Public Library, Chamber of Commerce, Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, Stepping Stones of Dunn County and others.
County staff will use the rankings if a deficit shows up in 2020. Lower-ranked departments will be eyed first for budget cuts, Miller said.
Supervisors used a majority vote to rank the options.
Many supervisors expressed reluctance to prioritize some services over others but agreed emergency services and safety were at the top of the list.
“I’m going for health and human safety as a top priority because the safety of this community is our fundamental first response,” said supervisor Kelly McCullough of Menomonie.
“Think about the county we live in. We all would like everything to be a one, I know that. It’s impossible,” said supervisor James Anderson of Menomonie.
No department staff or services will be cut or reduced immediately, Miller said.
“What we’re doing today is not about actual dollars, not about actual money. It’s about prioritization,” Miller said. “(Low ranking) doesn’t mean it’s not important. What we are saying is, we can’t do everything.”
A perfect storm
An initial $4 million gap in the county’s 2019 budget has Miller and county leaders worried about 2020. Several issues could cause an even larger deficit in 2020, Miller said.
“Historically and in the past decade” Dunn County has been fiscally healthy, but that has changed within the past several years, Miller said.
A spike in methamphetamine cases has upped demand for child and mental health services, driving costs up and straining law enforcement, circuit court and the district attorney’s office, Miller said.
Wisconsin’s low Medicaid reimbursement rate is also hurting the county’s financials.
But it’s the state levy limit — a measure intended to keep property taxes from rising too quickly — that’s strangling the county’s budget, Miller said.
Dunn County’s 2019 tax levy, $21.6 million, is the maximum allowed by the state. Adding net new construction or asking taxpayers to override the levy cap through a referendum are ways to increase that limit.
“The problem is if there isn’t much new construction, we don’t add much (levy), yet the cost of services keeps going up, and the cost of employees goes up if nothing else,” Miller said.
County heads predict 2020 expenditures will increase by 3.9 percent.
Despite the budget troubles, no cuts will be made immediately, Miller said. Saturday’s department rankings aren’t set in stone.
If a low-ranked program or department receives significant grant money or isn’t significantly funded by the county, it might not be worth cutting the service, and budget heads plan to take that into account, Miller said.
Miller also proposed a working list of money-saving measures for supervisors to consider. Included on the list were contracting out services or reducing staff in finance, human resources, IT, county administration, highway, planning and zoning, corporation counsel, surveying or human services departments.