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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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County Looking At Ways To Cure Chronic Budget Deficit

During the coming year and perhaps beyond, the people who run Marinette County government will be taking a no holds barred look at where spending can be reduced or income increased to narrow the gap between what can be legally raised in property tax levies and the cost of operating county programs. The two ways to narrow that gap are to increase revenues or cut expenses.

For starters, the Executive Committee advised closer looks at out-sourcing janitorial and printing services; handling vehicle maintenance for all departments through the Highway Department, and attempting to arrange a “LEAN” event involving the private, nonprofit Marinette County Elderly Services/Committee on Aging (which gets $171,236 each year in county tax funds) and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Elderly Services has been a hot button item in the county for the past year, and any hints of attempts to cut that agency’s funding has brought a storm of protests. At the January meeting, the Executive Committee mandated that for next year the payment to Elderly Services be done through a contract with the county through the Health and Human Services Department. Elderly Services Director Pam Mueller-Johnson has indicated willingness to go along with the contract idea, and explain exactly how they use their funds.

Discussion before the vote in February to pursue the LEAN event centered on explanations that it does not necessarily mean the agency would lose funds, and in fact might find there are other services the private agency could provide more economically than the Health and Human Services Department.

Other possibilities to be investigated are possibly having official papers, for example court summonses, served by Sheriff’s deputies rather than outside contractors; sick leave rules, including abuses and possible banking of comp time for extended sick pay; new rules for the hiring and employee training processes, and reductions in comp time and on-call pay. It is likely they also will look into central purchasing to hopefully gain volume buying advantages and offering services (at a price) to municipalities and other counties.

A cost-savings idea not on the list was put forth by Supervisor Bill Walker, who suggested buying vehicles with high fuel economy ratings for departments where they are appropriate, for example Health and Human Services case workers. No action was taken on that suggestion. There were comments they also would need to look at the initial cost of those vehicles compared with more conventional models.

In presentations to the County Board’s Executive Committee in January and again on Monday, Feb. 17, County Administrator Ellen Sorensen said this year’s structural deficit - the amount by which spending exceeds income - is $800,000. If nothing more is done, it will be in that neighborhood again next year. She stressed that the county is still in excellent financial condition, but if the structural deficits continue, eventually the reserves built up over the years will be used up.

Sorensen she feels better about this year’s budget than she did about the one approved last year, when the structural deficit was $1.7 million.

She has identified $350,000 in new savings for next year by trimming another 5 percent from county insurance costs and $100,000 in additional income generated by County Forest timber sales, for a total of $450,000. If those two goals are achieved, there would still be $350,000 needed in cuts or added income to fill the gap between tax revenues and spending.

One of the cuts found in 2013 resulted in a savings of $44,000 a year in telephone and cell phone costs. The insurance bill was also trimmed by 5 percent between 2013 and 2014, and Sorensen hopes for another 5 percent cut for 2015. Paying all bills by direct deposit will also save money, and that program has already been partially implemented.

“But,” Sorensen said,”I’ve pretty much picked all the low hanging fruit. The next cuts will be harder.”

In a prepared presentation in January, Sorensen explained the problem, provided some options, and asked the Executive Committee for input on what kinds of cuts or income generating programs would be acceptable to them. “I want you to tell me where to go,” she declared.

Finance Director Pat Kass said the county has been running deficit budgets for at least 10 years, pretty much since the state imposed levy limits went into effect. In recent years, declines in assessed values aggravated the levy limit problem.

Also, the county formerly earned a considerable amount from interest on investments, and that has been bottoming out as interest levels fell. Money in the state’s Local Government Investment Pool right now earns only .08 percent interest. At a Finance Committee meeting earlier in the day on Feb. 17 Kass was urged to move at least some of that $3.162 million to a higher yield investment. The $4.569 million invested in CDs with various local banks is earning an average of 1.011 percent interest.

At the start of the discussion in January, Sorensen explained a government budget deficit occurs when a government spends more than it receives in tax revenue. A structural deficit occurs when a budget deficit persists for some time.

She compared it to a family budget, in which ordinary expenses exceed the anticipated income. Families can either borrow or dip in to savings to make up the difference, they can eliminate luxuries and find other ways to cut expenses, or perhaps one or both spouses could find better paying jobs, work longer hours or take a second job.

Sorensen said county can look at ways to decrease expenditures, look at how they structure capital improvement projects, and/or find ways to increase revenues. Some cuts have already been made, which is why the deficit is only $800,000 in the 2014 budget compared with $1.7 million for 2013, Sorensen’s first full year on the job.

Some county programs are mandated by the state or federal governments. They cannot be eliminated, but the county may be able to find economies, Sorensen said.

Some programs are funded by state and/or federal governments, so cutting or eliminating them would save nothing, and might in fact cost money. “State and Federal grants help us to do lots of things,” Sorensen noted. Cutting fully funded programs would not help the budget deficit and might even add costs to the county levy.

Her presentation began with a list of non-mandated departments and their impact on the county property tax levy.

She explained being on the “non-mandated” list did not mean that the county was not going to do those things, only that these are programs and services they could look at reducing, eliminating, or assigning to some other department.

First on the list was administration, with a $211,494 impact on the levy. “You are not mandated to have an administrator,” Sorensen declared. “You could have an administrative coordinator. You could have a county executive...In at least one county the County Clerk handles the administrative work.

Other non-mandated departments are finance, with a $1,869,393 price tag this year; Corporation Counsel, $161,361; Human Resources, $149,406; Maintenance, $880,691; Parks, $631,465; UW Extension, $275,337; Dispatch, $1,345,531; County Roads, $1,660,535; Information Services, no levy because costs are charged back to the departments that use their services; and the Behavioral Health program in the Department of Health and Human Services, with a $2,906,181 impact on the tax levy.

Others are the library, which gets $935,728 from property taxes, and the Committee on Aging, with $171,236 coming from the tax levy.

Other non-mandated services and/or programs with significant but lesser impact on the tax levy are the GIS program of the Land Information Department, $60,000; Tourism, $95,000; Airport, $53,500; Economic Development (MCABI), $83,346; Office of Sheriff Programs, $82,210, and County Fair, $10,000.

Sorensen stressed at both the January and February meetings that just because these programs are on the non-mandated list doesn’t mean they won’t do them, “It just means they are not mandated.”

There were suggestions to see if the 911 Dispatch could earn income by providing that service to other counties on a contract basis, for example Oconto and Florence counties.

It is very unusual for counties to put any money into promoting tourism, Sorensen said, and wondered if they could perhaps regionalize and market the entire area, not just Marinette County.

There will be more attempts to cut personnel costs by utilizing students with court-ordered work restitution to take care of maintenance on the courthouse grounds, including the Veterans Memorial fountain.

As to the motor pool and other county owned vehicles, Sorensen said she would like to begin working on having Highway Department mechanics take over maintenance responsibilities in 2015.

Sorensen said she doesn’t want to lay people off, but feels the work force can be cut by attrition, by taking a close look at a position when someone quits or retires. She feels there are advantages in having more “floater” positions where employees can move from one department to another as the need arises. In some departments a 4-day work week will save money. newly hired employees will be expected to work 40 hours per week, versus former 35 hours in many departments.

Sorensen suggested in January that regionalization and shared services might work for tourism, the GIS system, dispatch, Health and Human Services, and Medical Examiner (which was voted down by County Board at its January meeting in favor of retaining the elected coroner’s position). She also suggested they might share some services with the City of Marinette.

Possible outsourcing could be done for information services, jail management, dispatch, some Health and Human Services programs, the motor pool, maintenance, janitorial services and the printshop. The printshop is to be particularly looked at, because equipment there is old, and replacement and repairs will be more and more expensive.

Withdrawing from Bay Lakes Regional Planning was also suggested, with a resulting savings of $17,094. Supervisor Ken Keller suggested they should do that. “We pay for it and we don’t use their recommendations anyway,” he declared

The push to go paperless was cited as a possible cost saving measure, and to some extent that is being done, but it comes with a price tag as County Supervisors have all been issued county-purchased I-Pads.

Consideration of lump sum payments to Tourism, MCABI, and UW-Marinette is also on the table.

Possibilities for increasing revenues include promoting more retail sales in the county, which along with the new Internet sales tax will generate added sales tax revenue, and adding the forester which will increase timber sale income. Sorensen expressed hope property values in the county will start going up again instead of down, which would increase revenue without raising the levy.

Briefly mentioned at the January meeting and again in February, during a brutal show storm, was a somewhat unpopular suggestion to cut highway maintenance costs by reducing snowplowing on county highways. “Every time we deploy the snow plows it costs $10,000,” Sorensen said, adding that idea was opposed by Highway Commissioner Ray Palonen, highway department workers and others. No one on the Executive Committee suggested going forward with that idea.

At the close of the January meeting the 12 supervisors who serve on the Executive Committee were asked to look over the ideas, give them some thought, and be ready to make some suggestions for the next meeting. The Executive Committee is made up of county board chair and vice chair and chairmen of all the 10 standing committees.

At the start of the February meeting, County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder told the committee he wanted the day to be a brainstorming session. “Don’t criticize if someone makes a suggestion you don’t like,” he admonished. “No ideas are bad ideas. We need to consider everything.”

Sorensen went over her presentation again, and noted again that the non-mandated programs are programs they have decided are good for the county, but there may be different ways to provide the services. Some services may be shared with other entities, some may be outsourced, some could be moved to other departments.

“I wish we had a silver bullet to cure this,” declared Schroeder. “But we don’t, so we just have to keep working on it.”

Supervisor Mike Behnke, who chairs the Buildings and Grounds Committee and serves on the Law Enforcement Committee, suggested using existing county personnel to serve papers and court orders. Currently having outside contractors serve papers costs the county about $36,000 a year, Behnke said, adding that with the crime rate constantly going up, this could be a really significant amount.

Schroeder suggested looking at sharing dispatch with other counties. He said in this electronic age no on needs to be sitting in the county they’re serving. He also suggested looking at centralized purchasing to possibly get better prices.

“I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to get rid of Elderly Services - I’m not!” declared Supervisor Kathy Just. But, she went on, “I’d like us to do a LEAN event with Elderly Services and the Health and Human Services Department, to look at the whole picture. She acknowledged there had been a study a few years back that found there are no overlaps or duplication of services, but said times change, and they might find efficiencies for both departments in delivery of services. Just is vice chair of County Board and chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Supervisor Ted Sauve had been a member of the committee who investigated the possibilities of overlaps and found there were none. “I think both agencies have been scrutinized quite thoroughly,” he declared, adding he could not support that motion.

“I think the problem is they (the two agencies) don’t talk enough,” countered Behnke, who has been a staunch Elderly Services supporter. “Neither one knows what the other does.”

“I just want us to look at it,” Just declared. “That doesn’t mean you’re taking something away.”

Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison said the contract with Elderly Services will spell out what they do for the money they get as it currently stands, but will not identify efficiencies that may be possible between the two agencies.

“They might get something more out of it than they do now,” Behnke commented. He said they just want to open things up and talk and find more ways to work together.

“It certainly is not my intent to destroy,” Just agreed. “It may be that we want to do more with them.”

“We have to spend the dollars we get from the taxpayers in the best possible way,” Connie Seefeldt said. “I think the LEAN event, if Elderly Services is willing to do it, may be the best way to make that happen.”

Vote was eight to three in favor of the motion, with supervisors Russ Bauer, Sauve and Alice Baumgarten opposed and Just, Behnke, Seefeldt, Melissa Christiansen, Keller, Ken Casper, Walker and Schroeder in favor. Russ Bousley was absent.

After some discussion on wording, a motion directing the administrator to look at the options of having county-generated legal papers delivered by county personnel was approved without dissent.

“We might find it’s cheaper the other way, but at least we will have looked at it,” Behnke commented.

Also approved without dissent were five items on Sorensen’s list connected with personnel, specifically hiring and training procedures, sick pay and reduction of comp time.

Several other items were discussed, and may be acted upon at a later date. Among them were a suggestion from Sauve to find a tenant soon for the old law enforcement/jail building behind the courthouse, and exploring the possibility of offering services to schools and municipalities, at a contracted rate. As to the old jail building, Sorensen said they do have a possible tenant, but are waiting for them to work things out. Sauve said if she meant the City of Marinette, “we’ve been waiting for two years!”

Behnke said the City of Peshtigo often has a problem getting training for its personnel, and he felt the municipalities and the county could benefit if they could share training in areas like safety, shooting skills for police officers, technology use and others. Schroeder suggested they also could do a better job of seeking municipalities to use the county to collect their property taxes. He said Peshtigo has tried to share the training in various areas, “but there seems to be a barrier.”

Behnke felt perhaps liability issues were the problem, and Seefeldt wondered if the county and its municipalities who get insurance through Wisconsin Counties Mutual could save money by buying liability and property damage insurance coverage together rather than each buying separately.

Pazynski suggested they look at having the Highway Department again work with the towns on road maintenance and construction projects. He said in the past the towns hired the county to do road work in summer, which kept Highway Department employees working so they were available for snow plowing in winter and were not collecting unemployment in summer. Sorensen said the county cannot be competitive with private enterprise because of the high cost of health insurance for county employees, “but we’re working on that.”

There also was a suggestion to work more closely with Oconto County, which has its own blacktopping plant.

Casper noted Oconto County does a lot of work for its towns, and wondered if Marinette County Highway Department even tries to market its services.

Schroeder explained a few years ago Marinette County decided to downsize its Highway Department, “and maybe we downsized too much. Now we would need more equipment, but it takes a while to get it back.” He suggested they might get some of the road work equipment financed through the $9.4 million bond issue County Board approved last month for projects identified in the 5-year capital improvement plan.

Sauve suggested the county needs to put more effort into collecting “uncollectable accounts” before writing them off. He felt areas of cooperation with Oconto County should be sought out, particularly since their County Board Chair, Lee Rymer, is unopposed for the April election, so it appears their leadership is stable for at least the next two years and the two counties have always had an excellent working relationship.

Sorensen is to put out requests for proposals for printing and maintenance services, and present the information to the appropriate parent committee, which in turn would forward the information with their recommendation to the Executive Committee and finally to County Board.

The only other business at the Feb. 17 meeting was accepting some changes in the county’s Code of Ethics ordinance as it relates to use supervisor’s of county-owned electronic devises such as cell phones, I-Pads, computers, etc. The committee made several changes to the wording proposed by Corporation Counsel Mattison before forwarding it to County Board for adoption in March.

Chief message in the ordinance is that supervisors have no right to privacy for communications on the county owned devices, and neither they nor privately owned devices are to be used for communications between supervisors and/or staff at board or committee meetings. Mattison cautioned a violation of that provision is also a violation of the state Open Meetings laws. All discussions and communications related to county business at meetings must be verbal, and done in a way that everyone can hear.

As to any expectations of privacy on the county owned devices, there is none. Marinette County has the right to disclose such data and communications to law enforcement, government officials and other third parties. Mattison cautioned that even private computers can be subjected to searches under Open Records laws if they have ever been used for county business. Several supervisors said their county messages somehow come through on their home computers as well as their county I-Pads and they have never asked that this be done.


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