The BOCC held its first Special Budget Meeting for FY17.
The BOCC held its first Special Budget Meeting for FY17.


MARATHON – At Monroe County’s first public budget meeting for Fiscal Year 2017, the Board of County Commissioners was presented with a proposed budget that decreases the millage rate for property taxes while keeping the General Operating Fund’s contingency fund at a healthy six months of operating costs.

This proposed budget, presented Tuesday at the Marathon Government Center, includes a $576,000 reduction in solid waste collection fees for its 32,000 residential households. The proposed budget also features no Consumer Price Index increases on building permit fees, a reduction of impacts fees and raises for County employees, especially those with the lowest wages.

“It seems to me, looking at the budget over a multi-year basis … that we are stabilized and that’s a good message to send to our taxpayers,” Commissioner Danny Kolhage said.

The County levied $85.3 million in property taxes for the Fiscal Year 2010. Last year, the County levied $5 million less, at $80.3 million. The County expects to levy less than $80.3 million for FY 2017.

“While your groceries, gas and just about everything else is going up, you can count on your County tax bill staying about the same as last year,” County Administrator Roman Gastesi said. “We have worked hard to keep property taxes stable while continuing to deliver the services you depend on.”

The County is proposing a below rolled-back rate. (A rolled-back rate is a rate that would generate the same amount of property tax revenues as approved for the prior year).

The budget always is a balancing act. Tina Boan, director of the County’s Office of Budget, explained that it involves approximately 694 different revenue sources, nearly 7,000 cost centers, thousands of projects and 60 plus funds, in which the monies have specific allowed uses. Each County department is part of the complex puzzle.

For the Building Department, while the Consumer Price Index is expected to increase, the County is proposing not to impose this increase for building permit fees. “We don’t have to because our building department fund is healthy,” Gastesi said.

The BOCC also directed County staff to raise the minimum salary of County employees to approximately $17.50 per hour.

“I feel for that lower rung, we have an obligation to make sure our employers are making enough to live off instead of having two or three jobs,” said Mayor Pro Tem George Neugent, who got unanimous support from the other Commissioners.

The proposed budget also includes a .7 percent cost of living adjustment, as well as up to 3.3 percent in performance-based merit increases for County employees.

One County service that now almost pays for itself is Trauma Star, the County’s air ambulance. It cost $2.7 million to operate last year, but took in revenues that covered 96 percent of its cost. That left taxpayers to foot only $285,516 of the bill, or just $1.41 per $100,000 in taxable property.

Last year, Trauma Star flew 397 patients to mainland hospitals. So far this year it has flown 201 people.

“From the service we get and the lives we save, that is unbelievable,” Neugent said.

With Trauma Star’s aging aircraft becoming more expensive to maintain, discussions have begun about replacing the helicopter with two smaller ones. Neugent said this could enable even more people “not be to stuck with a $30,000 bill (from a private air ambulance service).”

The BOCC also discussed using a tax on alcohol and tobacco products to create a trust to pay for social service programs in the County that are now being paid by property taxes – and to expand its funding of social service programs to reach needy children, senior citizens and others who now are falling through the cracks.

“We’re trying to think outside of the box on how to support social services,” Gastesi said.

Using this type of tax as a dedicated revenue source would require changes by the State Legislature. The BOCC agreed for County staff to research the needed legislative efforts, the revenue it could generate and the requirements and structure of such a trust. County staff also will develop language for a possible referendum on the issue in November.

“I remember sitting on the Commission during the recession and cutting a lot of social services because we had to,” Mayor Heather Carruthers said. “We had to make decisions about filling potholes or putting a hot meal in front of somebody who can’t cook for themselves. During the hardest times the ones who need it most seem to be the ones hurt the most.”

The County’s entire budget cannot be completed until the budgets for the Constitutional Offices are received on June 1. On July 1, the Property Appraiser will certify property values in the County. By July 11, the tentative budget is delivered to the Board of County Commissioners.

On July 18, the Board of County Commissioners will certify a proposed millage rate during another special budget meeting. The final part of the process occurs in September, with two public hearings and a third special budget meeting.

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