Excerpts from original article from the Hudson Star-Observer

During a four-hour work session Oct. 14, St. Croix County supervisors got their first look at a proposed 2016 budget that would raise the tax levy over $1 million and result in a modest tax increase for the average property owner.

The new mill rate means a county tax in 2016 of about $933 for a $241,657 house (the median value in St. Croix). The owner of that median-value house will pay about 50 cents a month more in 2016 than in 2015.

Of the $1 million increase, $653,000 goes to debt service to begin repaying bonds for the new nursing home and assisted living facility in New Richmond and the second phase of updating the emergency 911 communications system. The other $428,000 is for higher operating costs throughout county government.

The total budget would be $80.77 million with $30.47 million coming from property taxes and $17.68 million from state and federal aid. The budget anticipates using $6.7 million from the county’s sales tax and $785,560 from fund balance.

Personnel: A new pay chart – developed after a market study by consultant Victoria McGrath and adopted by the board in August – adds $525,000 to the 2016 budget for “market-rate” raises for employees. The raises go into effect Jan. 1.

Well over half the county budget is employee pay and benefits, said Thompson, who praised the board for agreeing to update the salary schedule.

“We think it will set us up for years to come in terms of our competitiveness with positions,” he said, adding, “It was a big move, and it came with a price tag, but it sets us up for success in the future.”

The county used a pay-for-performance plan to give raises and bonuses this year but won’t use that in 2016. Instead $300,000 from the performance fund will help cover salary schedule increases.

What will happen in 2017 when that balance is not there to cover the higher salaries? asked Supervisor Judy Achterhof, Emerald.

“It’ll be a challenge,” admitted Thompson, saying departmental budgets will have to cover that for 2017. He said there will be no step increases in 2016.

New positions: The budget adds seven jobs at county expense. Contract savings, elimination of two other jobs and Medicaid cover some of the cost. The new positions include an information technology specialist, a financial systems manager, a mechanic at the Health Center and two social workers.

Plans also call for adding six new human service jobs that will be fully state and federally funded.

Once the new dementia crisis unit at the Health Center in New Richmond is completed around mid-October, about 20 new positions — including 16 certified nursing assistants — will be added. Crisis unit staff will be partially funded with state Family Care money.

Below are some highlights from the 25 budget presentations given Oct. 14.

Sheriff’s Department: Sheriff John Shilts requested a 2016 budget of $10.5 million compared to a 2015 budget of $10.13 million. Thompson cut the request to $10.2 million.

The department has the equivalent of 89.5 fulltime employees. Wages and benefits are almost 80 percent of the budget. Law enforcement officers are the only county employees still allowed to negotiate for wages, and that contract will be negotiated in 2016.

Shilts expects a nearly $110,000 drop in outside revenues, noting fewer foreclosures mean few process-serving fees and no snow last year meant the department couldn’t file for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reimbursement for patrol of snowmobile trails.

The department would like to open a day-reporting center attached to the jail. While Shilts hopes the price of remodeling will stay in the 2016 budget, he said he is not ready to add staff for that area.

The sheriff expects part of Huber section would be converted to a lobby with rooms off to the side where juveniles and low-risk offenders can be processed with fingerprints and DNA collected and mug shots taken without taking those people into the jail proper.

Shilts said about 2,500 offenders are out on bond at any one time with the court-ordered periodic drug testing. The new area could also be used for random testing of those medium-risk offenders, he said.

Emergency Support Services: The department’s operating budget, which does not include staff pay and benefits, will go from $162,992 to $269,717, said interim director Steve T’Kach.

He attributed that to significant increases in maintenance costs for software and equipment and about $42,000 more in electricity charges for the 14 communication towers the county will have by the end of the year.

“One of the things that we encounter with advanced technology … is as everything advances, it costs more to maintain and upgrade – firm-ware software, hardware,” said T’Kach.

Highway Department: The department’s budget is about $16.7 million, about $6 million of which is covered by the property tax levy, said Highway Commissioner Tim Ramberg, but the business the department performs is about $26 million.

The department gets funding from the state and local governments for work it does on their roads. The 2016 property tax levy would be about $60,000 more than 2015.

Ramberg said he is holding the winter maintenance budget at $950,000. That was increased from $750,000 in 2014 after two bad winters and higher costs. Expenditures in that area were down in 2015, but Ramberg is sticking with the $950,000.

Hot mix prices went down which should result in about a $150,000 decrease in cost there and soften the blow of other increases, said Ramberg.

He said this year the department gained about $16,000 through the county’s $10 vehicle registration fee, which is collected by the state along with its own annual registration fee.

The county’s roads and bridges were deteriorating, but adoption of the registration fee in 2007 helped reverse that trend, said Ramberg. He displayed graphs showing the rating of bridges in the county is significantly better than the national average and Wisconsin’s average. The condition rating on the county system is even better, with only about 3 percent that are deficient or too narrow, said Ramberg.

Medical examiner: The department’s operating costs are expected to increase by about $68,000, reported Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner. That’s a jump of over 40 percent.

Schachtner said much of the increase is due to a higher run volume and more autopsies, which cost $3,000 apiece through Ramsey County, Minn. So far in 2015, St. Croix has had 38 autopsies, and Schachtner expects 40 by the end of the year. It’s within the realm of possibility that the county will need 50 autopsies in 2016, she said.

Cremations and unattended deaths also require work from the office.

“Our numbers keep going up. They not going to go down,” said Schachtner. She added, “I can’t control people dying in St. Croix County, though I would like to.”

Information Technology: The 2015 budget was $1.16 million. The recommended 2016 budget is $1.8 million. The amount budgeted for wages and benefits is roughly $1 million or about $350,000 more than 2015.

Director John Allegro attributed much of a $120,000 increase in operating costs to higher costs of licensing and maintenance contracts, adding a new fulltime position and moving telecom billing from Emergency Support Services and Health and Human Services to the IT department.

Community Development: This department, which has 25 fulltime-equivalency and 15 seasonal positions, covers development, parks and the resource management division. Over $2.1 million, or 64 percent, of its budget is for wages and benefits.

Director Ellen Denzer said a decrease in the hazardous waste grant from the state has meant higher disposal costs for the county and the budget covers higher costs for cellphones, software maintenance and computer hardware.

Elections: County Clerk Cindy Campbell reported that the amount budgeted for elections will go from $55,150 for 2015 to $104,050 for 2016 because there will be four elections next year compared to two this year.