To avoid presenting the county board with a tax levy increase, the Oneida County Administration Committee made some bold cuts during its final day of budget hearings Wednesday.
After finding itself staring at a tax levy $27,754 higher than last year’s, after three days of arduous budget hearings, the committee decided to cut the dive team and slash the animal shelter budget.
The goal, they said, was to fashion a budget with a zero increase to the levy, if not an overall decrease,
Supervisor Jerry Shidell suggested the county could save $23,354 if it cut the dive team.
“Twenty-four counties in Wisconsin do not have a dive team, so that’s one-third of the counties in Wisconsin that don’t even have a dive team, number one,” Shidell said. “Number two, there are 19 dive teams that are operated by the fire department within a county ... so you have 43 counties that do not have the dive team underneath the sheriff and I think, at this point, we’ve spent probably in excess of $300,000 to $400,000 ... to have a dive team around that we need to keep training every year.”
Instead of having an official team, the county should move toward hiring and paying divers on a per dive basis to retrieve bodies, Shidell suggested.
County board chairman Ted Cushing spoke in favor of the dive team. He argued the team is necessary if a rescue operation scenario were to occur.
He also said a lot of the counties in Shidell’s statistics probably don’t have the vast number of lakes that Oneida County has.
The rest of the committee, however, sided with Shidell and the motion passed with Cushing casting the lone dissenting vote.
Even after cutting the dive team, the committee had more work to do to get the tax levy down to a zero increase. Supervisor Dave Hintz suggested the committee could get to its magic number if it decreased its expenditure for the animal shelter from $46,000 to $40,000.
Hintz’s idea was approved unanimously.
With that cut, the committee was left with a proposed levy of $15,001,089 for 2013 compared to 2012’s levy of $15,002,689.
The levy, and all proposed cuts, still have to be approved by the full county board which will finalize the 2013 budget in November.
Here is an overview of the other decisions made during Wednesday’s budget hearing.
NCWRPC decision reversed
During Monday’s budget hearing, the committee voted unanimously not to pay the $46,000 North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (NCWRPC) membership fee.
The NCWRPC works with several county departments on multiple projects. It helps the Land Records Department with mapping projects, such as the recently completed aerial imagery project which saved the county $30,000. It has also assisted the Sheriff’s Department on communication projects by helping to partner the department with North East Public Safety Communications, a group that has helped make sure over 500 public safety organizations throughout 16 counties in the state can communicate reliably and effectively.
The Oneida County Emergency Management Department has also worked closely with the NCWRPC on Hazard Assessment and Mapping projects, creating the county’s All-Hazard Mitigation Plan, which is required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be completed every five years, and developing a County Emergency Response Zone Atlas which has helped to reduce emergency response times.
Shidell suggested the county discontinue its membership in the organization. He argued the NCWRPC gets in the way of private enterprise assisting the county with projects.
“It’s an organization that is funded by government doing, basically, grant writing for people and competing with the private enterprise. That’s it in a nutshell,” Shidell said.
The rest of the committee agreed with Shidell, at the time, but it was suggested that the commission be invited to talk to the committee about what it does and why it is a good idea for Oneida County to continue the partnership.
Dennis Lawrence, executive director of the NCWRPC, appeared before the committee two days later to explain the benefits the county receives through the partnership.
He listed and explained many of the projects that the commission has worked on in Oneida County and gave the committee data that shows the county gets $2.3 back on every dollar invested through the membership fee.
Chief Deputy John Sweeney of the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, Land Information Director Mike Romportl, and Emergency Management Director Ken Kortenhof also came forward to speak on behalf of the commission.
Their words proved to be persuasive.
“Dennis Lawrence was able to mention a number of projects that they had done or conducted for the county and also detailed their funding, their total budget,” Committee Chair Dave Hintz said. “A number of counties pay approximately a third of the budget for North Central Planning, with the state and federal government providing the additional funding. So, we’re able to get consulting services or planning services at a rate where the county basically pays a third of their total cost.”
“After listening to what (the NCWRPC) had to say and after listening to Chief Deputy Sweeney and Kortenhof and Romportl pretty much say, ‘why do you want to handcuff us, these people do a lot of good work for us,’ the decision was reversed,” Cushing said.
Shidell continued to object but the rest of the committee decided the membership fee should be paid. The final vote was 4 - 1.
The Oneida County Humane Society (OCHS), which took over operating the Rhinelander Animal Shelter in July, requested $46,000 to help cover the estimated $92,000 deficit it is facing for 2013.
The Humane Society is asking the city of Rhinelander for the same amount.
“One of the reasons that we’re coming to the county to do this is because we want to completely discontinue that $25 fee for strays to the townships,” Anna Kazda, president of the OCHS, said. “It’s a lot of administrative work for us. Secondly, we don’t always get it. It’s spotty, here and there. Most of all, I think the townships don’t like it — they see it as double-dipping because when people come to get their stray animal from us, we charge them and then we charge the town for bringing the stray in and then the town bills the owner of the animal also and it’s kind of a big mess.”
Cushing suggested a different approach. He said the Humane Society could help erase its deficit if it raised the fees instead of getting rid of them.
Committee member Sonny Paszak also said he could not support giving the Humane Society the money.
“Not that I’m against it, but these people that have pets should pay more money because I don’t have a pet. Why should I pay it?” Paszak said.
Kazda countered that argument by noting that people who don’t have children still pay taxes that support the School District of Rhinelander. Everyone has to pay for things they don’t necessarily use, she said.
The committee voted to give the Humane Society the money with Cushing and Paszak supplying the only two nay votes.
That decision was then modified later in the day, dropping the figure to $40,000 to get the 2013 tax levy under the 2012 levy.
The Medical Examiner’s Office was one of only a few departments to request a higher budget than it had last year.
It requested $45,273 for 2013, up from the $44,159 in 2012.
The main reason for the change is the medical examiner is now a full-time position.
The committee approved the budget unanimously, with Hintz commending the department for getting through a tough year.
“I think it’s important to remember this department had a very difficult year, a transition year, and many changes were needed in this area so it needed our attention,” Hintz said. “It was a department, certainly, in trouble and I think it’s turned around and we’re very pleased with the performance of the medical examiner.”
The office had been in turmoil after Former Oneida County Medical Examiner Traci England was charged in January with felony misconduct in office related to the misuse of human tissue. The charges are still pending but England has resigned.
Information Technology Services
The Information Technology Services Department (ITS) was another of the few departments to request an increased budget.
It came forward requesting $865,903 for 2013, up from $858,118.
The department asked for more money due to some staffing changes and projects the department is planning for 2013, including upgrading the county’s phone system.
“Right now, we plug the telephones into the wall and then that goes to a telephone service,” ITS Director Lynn Grube said. “(After the project is completed), the phones will be like little computers that are plugged into the network and the network provides the voice service. That, since it’s all inside a computer, can all be integrated into (county officials’ and employees’) computers.”
The change should provide more reliable service and better connectivity, Grube said.
The budget was approved unanimously.
The Public Health Department requested $434,667 for 2013, down from the $489,467 it requested for 2012.
The request was approved unanimously.
Nothing set in stone
None of the actions taken by the committee Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are final.
The county’s 2013 budget will be finalized on Nov. 13 when the full county board reviews the requests.
Marcus Nesemann may be reached at email@example.com.