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County starts budget work 'in the hole'

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As St. Croix County leaders met to initiate 2008 budget work, supervisors were warned that increasing salaries and health insurance costs will add $1.35 million to the budget, more than wiping out potential tax levy savings realized if the county nursing home is privatized.

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The district attorney also asked that the county take over a court diversion program that is now grant funded, and the highway commissioner proposed a local vehicle registration fee to help pay for road maintenance.

Finance workers estimate salaries and fringe benefits will cost the county 2.5% -- or $640,000 -- more next year. Health insurance costs are expected to go up 12% for an increase of $712,000.

Negotiations are in progress to either sell or rent the county-owned nursing home to Christian Community Home of Hudson. The 2007 property tax levy for the home was $1.27 million.

St. Croix won't get state numbers on its property tax levy cap until late summer, but it's possible that a slowdown in new construction will mean a smaller levy hike than in past years, warned Administrative Coordinator Chuck Whiting.

As usual there isn't enough money to do everything, said Whiting June 7. He said the intention at this point is to identify problem areas.

"You can see that we're already in the hole before we even start," said Finance Committee Chairman Stan Krueger as he kicked off a meeting with committee chairmen and department heads.

Other expected increases include two new support positions if the county gets a fourth judge, capital improvement costs that were chopped from the budget last year and higher costs for retirees' use of sick-leave banks to pay health insurance premiums.

Highway costs

As chip seal and hot mix prices go up, the county hasn't been able to keep up with its goal of repaving 16 miles of road and sealing 54 miles of highway a year, said Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg. The county has 350 miles of roads and must keep on a regular maintenance schedule to control deterioration and costs, he said.

Because the cost of hot mix and chip seal has increased so much, it would cost $1 million more this year than it did three years ago to keep to the maintenance schedule, said Transportation Committee Chairman Richard King. But, he said, the Highway Department's share of the county tax levy has been shrinking.

King said his committee is suggesting a $10 per vehicle registration fee that would be added to the annual state fee. The current registration fee for cars is $55.

The county registration fee would be "an additional and reliable funding source," said King. He said the state would charge 10 cents per vehicle to collect the county fee.

The Highway Department and committee are against bonding or borrowing for maintenance work because they don't feel that cost should be passed on to future generations and there would be no way to stop once that started, said Ramberg.

King said the $10 per vehicle fee would net the county about $700,000 a year.

Jail diversion

District Attorney Eric Johnson said funding is running out on a court diversion program that has been very successful in St. Croix County. He asked for funding to continue it.

Federal grants have funded the program for two years, said Johnson, but the $55,000 grant will run out in December.

"It would be a shame if that program went under," said Johnson.

Program Coordinator Lisa Multhauf said the program gives first-time offenders a second chance and the opportunity to avoid a criminal record. She said 202 defendants have been accepted into the program, 97 are in it now, and 84 have completed it.

Defendants who are recommended for the program must sign agreements to stay with it for periods ranging from six to 24 months. They pay a $150 fee and court costs of about $100. They must also pay restitution if that's appropriate, complete counseling and community service programs and, in many cases, stay in school.

"It's worked," said Johnson. He said the program saves court, jail and probation costs and has generated about $50,000 in revenue.

The program is a bargain compared to work-release jail costs, commented County Board Chairman Buck Malick, who asked if a fee increase would be possible.

"My concern is the higher the fee, the less participation you'll get," said Johnson.

No decision on county funding for the program was made.

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