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St. Croix board tackles $750,000 gap between 2010 budget requests, revenue

St. Croix County supervisors and administrators are $750,000 short of reaching a balanced 2010 budget, according to reports heard by the County Board Tuesday.

In his budget progress report, Finance Committee Chairman Daryl Standafer said because of prudent budgeting last year, the county avoided mid-year layoffs forced on other governmental units.

Standafer said even though the state would allow the county to raise its 2010 property tax levy higher, the Finance Committee intends to increase the levy only by the amount of new construction. Theoretically that would mean no tax increase on other property.

This isn't the time to be raising taxes, said Standafer. He said the county will keep the 25 percent fund balance recommended by auditors, but the Finance Committee plans to use half of the amount above that to buy down the property tax levy.

The committee is again recommending using lower estimates for sales tax income. While there are some indications the economy is rebounding, the county must be conservative in estimating revenue, said Standafer.

"You're in as good a spot or better than most," said Bob Moore of Institutional Capital Management in a related report.

Moore, the county's investment counselor, said the county has been conservative in its investments and has done a "tremendous job" in managing its cash flow.

The U.S. economy is flirting with recovery, but the country has no idea of the real condition of its economy without federal stimulus programs, said Moore. He predicted that as the federal and state governments struggle with deficits, local communities may have to fend for themselves more and more.

While the county still has to close the $750,000 gap to reach a balanced budget, at this point the County Board has not looked at borrowing to close the hole, but that remains a possibility.

During Tuesday's meeting, 30 department heads briefly went over their budget proposals. Though not all were able to do that, they had been asked to submit alternatives showing what a zero increase and five percent and 10 percent decreases would do to their operations.

Here is a sampling of some of those reports:

Sheriff's Department

His primary expenses are for wages, said Sheriff Dennis Hillstead. His proposed budgets show a net increase of nearly nine percent for the department and the jail.

Hillstead noted that a third court security officer was added in August and a jailer who has been deployed to Afghanistan will be returning to work in 2010. Because of an increasing number of seriously ill prisoners, costs for home monitoring is up, said the sheriff. More hours are also needed for the nurse and doctor who treat inmates in the jail.

Planning and Zoning

With less construction, income from fees is down about 19 percent and he plans to cut his budget by 25 percent, said Planning and Zoning Director Dave Fodroczi. He intends to eliminate one position from existing staff and won't refill a vacant real property lister position.

Highway Department

His department can't hold to a zero-percent increase without losing federal funds, said Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg. He suggested borrowing money to keep to the department's road repair and replacement goals, repaying the loans in 20 years and slowly increasing the tax levy money the department gets until it gets caught up.

"Do we want our children to inherit these issues?" asked Ramberg, referring to deteriorating roads.