By Carl Cooley

and Bob Zientara

A property tax increase of just under $680,000 is on the horizon as the Barron County Board of Supervisors finalized its 2020 budget at a meeting held Monday, Nov. 4.

There were two final budget adjustments approved by supervisors, neither of which will affect the budget or levy.

At the Nov. 4 meeting, the County Board approved:

• A one-time transfer of $10,000 from the county’s contingency fund to pay for a marketing project sponsored by the Barron County Economic Development Corporation.

• A transfer of $20,000 from the general fund to the Sheriff’s Department to pay the cost of outfitting squad cars.

The spending plan approved Nov. 4 is nearly identical to one described at an earlier meeting on Oct. 21.

At that meeting, county finance director Jodi Busch said the 2020 tax levy was projected at $21,955,284, a three percent increase over 2019’s levy of $21,315,394.

And while the levy is set to increase, the property tax rate—mill rate—will be going down. This is due to new construction adding to the county’s tax base.

The county’s valuation has increased from $4.2 billion to $4.4 billion and because the tax base grew, the tax rate went down, even with an increase in the levy amount.

Busch noted the county’s mill rate for 2020 was projected to be 5.05, compared to 5.12 in 2019.

The county’s total budget for 2020 is $66.7 million for 2020. Compared to 2019, the budget has grown $4.7 million from $62.4 million (a 7.5 percent increase).

For 2020, the highway department is the largest part of the budget, with $16.8 million of the budget (25 percent). Then it is health and human services with $15.8 million (24 percent), general government funds and departments with $10.6 million (16 percent), sheriff’s department with $8.7 million (13 percent) and waste to energy recycling plant at $4.6 million (7 percent). The rest of the budget is comprised of debt payments, special revenue funds, capital improvement projects and the contingency fund for a combined total of $10.2 million (15 percent).

Busch noted that department heads have worked hard to trim their department budgets and keep the levy increase to only three percent. The initial proposed budget proposed nearly a 10 percent increase, which would have put the county over the state-mandated levy limit.

The levy for 2020 was $748,420 beneath that limit.

How the levy is lowered

Supervisor Don Horstman, District 26, towns of Cumberland and Stanfold, asked Busch to explain for newer members of the board how the county uses excess collected sales taxes to offset the levy.

The county estimates how much sales tax will be collected and applies that to budget calculations. After the year is up, if there is a surplus above the amount budgeted, half of it is used to offset next year’s county tax levy.

“If there is any extra, in a sense, we are giving it back to the taxpayer by reducing the levy,” Busch said. An estimated $3.7 million in sales taxes would be applied to the 2020 budget, with $931,600 from prior years used to offset the levy.

Adding dam assessments for Rice Lake and Beaver Lake, as well as the $28 recycling surcharge (applied to the property tax bill of any improved lot of land) the total county levy collected for 2020 is expected to be $22,510,330, Busch noted.

Supervisor Burnell “Bun” Hanson, District 21, city of Rice Lake, asked if churches and hospitals paid the $28 recycling fee. Busch was not sure, and board Chairman Louie Okey, District 16, towns of Cedar Lake, Doyle and Oak Grove, figured places that did not pay property taxes did not pay the recycling fee as well.

“That’s the only place they charge it, on your [property] tax bill, and they don’t get one,” Okey said.

Hanson figured they should pay the recycling fee, too. “Well they should,” he said.

DA changes, Sheriff budget freeze

With a new assistant district attorney—funded by the state—being added to Barron County’s District Attorney’s Office, Supervisor Gary Taxdahl, District 8, village of Turtle Lake and town of Almena, asked if the DA’s request to increase hours for part-time office assistant had been approved. Busch said it was not in the 2020 budget. Okey said it was postponed to 2021.

Previously, District Attorney Brian Wright said his office could manage the extra duties for now.

Busch noted there were no increases to the budget due to health insurance. That would stay at 2019 levels with the new self-funded insurance plan the county adopted earlier this month.

The sheriff’s department budget was frozen at 2019 levels for two years, as a result of Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald approving a $744,238 contract with Spillman Technologies Inc. without board approval. However, there were $15,000 in overtime, and around $17,600 in jail expenses and $6,000 in technology fees that had been approved. These costs would be covered by the county’s contingency fund.

Incinerator litigation

The board went into closed session at the tail end of the meeting to discuss an alleged Environmental Protection Agency violation at the county’s waste to energy incinerator.

The county’s attorney, John Muench, said he gave an update to the board on the matter.

“We have been meeting with the EPA and providing information to explain why there is/was no violation in an attempt to resolve this matter,” Muench said after the meeting. “The EPA has not filed a complaint in this matter at this point and we are hopeful that we will be able to resolve the matter in the near future.”

No action was taken and the board adjourned after coming back into open session, Muench said.

In other business:

• Chairman Okey read a proclamation, recognizing Henry Repeating Arms, of Rice Lake, and the company’s “Big Boy All-Weather” lever-action rifle which was voted as “coolest” thing made in Wisconsin by a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce competition.

• Representatives from the St. Croix Tribal Council spoke to the board. Michael Decorah and Peter LeBlanc, spoke on behalf of council members who could not attend as the council was meeting at the same time. The tribe is located in Barron, Burnett and Polk counties.

Decorah said they hoped the tribe and counties can work together for the benefit of their communities.

Barron County Economic Development Corporation director Dave Armstrong said he was working with the tribe with the BizStart program, which helps small business start-ups.

• Absent from the meeting were supervisors Bob Anderson, District 24, town of Rice Lake; and Jess Miller, District 22, city of Rice Lake.