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County tax rate drops to under $3 per $1,000

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River Falls,Wisconsin 54022 http://www.hudsonstarobserver.com/sites/all/themes/hudsonstarobserver_theme/images/social_default_image.png
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County tax rate drops to under $3 per $1,000
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Although St. Croix County's total tax levy will be higher than ever, the 2007 tax rate charged to individual property owners will be lower than it has been in the last 30 years.

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"Our mill rate will be just a shade under $3 for the first time in memory," said Finance Committee Chairman Stan Krueger as he opened discussions at the county's annual budget hearing Oct. 31.

While departments asked to add or expand over a dozen jobs, the board voted to add only a drug court coordinator.

The budget adopted by the County Board last week drops the tax per $1,000 of property value to $2.944. The rate was nearly $4 in 1974, leveled out at about $5.50 in the mid-1990s and has been dropping steadily since 2002.

Under a state mandate that ties levy increases to new construction, St. Croix County was allowed to increase its levy 5.262 percent. But taxes raised to pay debt are outside that limit, so the board took advantage of that exception and increased the levy 5.94 percent.

The 2007 local property tax levy for county government will be $23.6 million, or about 27 percent of the overall budget of $88.5 million. Other major sources of income are charges for services and state and federal aids.

"The residential taxpayers are paying the burden of our taxes," said Krueger. Because houses make up the bulk of the property value in the county, they account for about 80 percent of the property tax base. Commercial property accounts for 12 percent, manufacturing property about 2 percent, and agricultural property less than 1 percent.

Krueger pointed out that the county's property tax levy has doubled since 2000 when it was just a little over $10 million. He said Finance Committee members are concerned that a slowdown in new construction will mean a slower increase in revenue for 2008.

Debts

Krueger also noted that the county will make its year-three payment of $387,645 on the jail strip search settlement in 2007. That debt is on track to be paid off in 2010.

The new budget also moves $286,000 of capital outlay items to a borrowing pool. Payments on that debt won't begin until 2008.

That pool will include $110,000 to replace a 16-year-old phone system for the Health and Human Services Department, $15,000 to replace the parking lot at St. Croix Industries and $161,000 for Information Technology Department items, including a mass storage device, a phone system upgrade and an uninterruptible power source and air handling equipment.

Benefits worker

Although the Finance Committee had been opposed to the idea, the full board voted 18-13 to make a benefit specialist in the Department on Aging a regular county employee rather than a contract worker.

The benefit specialist, which is a 35-hour-a-week job, has been a contract position for 15 years. But this worker hasn't gotten the fringe benefits and paid time off that regular county employees get.

Department of Aging Director Kjersti Duncan said the change will cost the county $3,980 a year. She has the money in her budget to cover that amount.

Since the same person will be doing the same work, Duncan agreed that making the change won't affect the quality of service to the department's clients. But she wondered if it is legal to continue the position as a contract worker indefinitely.

Every board member would probably like some minor changes in this $80 million budget, but supervisors should defer to the work of the Finance Committee, said Supervisor Gordon Awsumb.

"The big picture is what is important, and we shouldn't fine-tune the budget," insisted Awsumb. But he was in the minority.

Collections clerk

A last-ditch effort to add a collections clerk in the clerk of court's office did fail.

Public Protection Committee members have been anxious to find ways to collect delinquent fines, but this new worker would have focused on developing payment plans for people who get new fines in court.

The Finance Committee had turned down this request, along with several others from other departments. During last week's meeting, Supervisor Bill Cranmer, Hudson, suggested the county hire a collections clerk on a temporary basis.

"This would bring in new income," said Cranmer. He suggested hiring a clerk as an experiment for six months.

Cranmer said the county now has about $2.4 million in delinquent fines and fees. About $1.4 million is from the last five years.

"Sometimes you have to spend money to make money," he said.

If her department added this clerk, it could be proactive in collecting fees by such methods as wage assignments, said Clerk of Court Lori Meyer.

Finance Committee member Daryl Standafer, a banker by profession, said he was required to work collections early in his career.

It's an unpleasant, difficult job, said Standafer. He predicted the county would have trouble finding a qualified person to do the work on a temporary basis.

"If I thought this had a realistic possibility to make a dent in unpaid fines, I'd be on board in a second," said Standafer.

Eau Claire County has added three collection clerks in the last few years so they must work, replied Meyer. "Our biggest issue is we don't have staff time to do payment plans, to put people on structured plans..."

Supervisors voted to table the matter and refer it to the Finance Committee.

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