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Continued financial constraints push county officials to action

Eau Claire County officials, in the near future, are going to be reaching out to state lawmakers, county supervisors and taxpayers to convey business can’t go on as usual.

“We all know how difficult it was to put the 2019 county budget together,” Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf told members of the committees on Administration and Finance and Budget during a joint meeting Thursday.

The county’s 2019 budget includes $113.59 million in overall spending; a $34.02 million tax levy — the amount collected from taxpayers; and a tax rate of $4.06 per $1,000 of equalized valuation. In comparison, the county’s 2018 budget included $109.37 million in spending; a $32.24 million tax levy; and $4.09 tax rate.

For more than a decade, counties and other local municipal units of government have been subject to a levy limit program, which restricts the year-to-year increases in county and municipal property tax levies.

Wisconsin statutes limit county operating property tax levy increases to zero percent or the increase in countywide net new construction value, whichever is greater. Equalized value due to net new construction increased at 2.89 percent in 2018, so the 2019 county budget recommendations were based on a 2.89 percent increase in the operating tax levy.

“We have a vision of wanting to have a good, financial, sustainable base from which we can grow along with our community … ,” Schauf said. “We … know that in order to really be effective and survive we cannot simply do that through … cutting and shrinking services. But at this point, in many areas that is our only option.”

During the meeting Thursday, county finance director Norb Kirk said Eau Claire County has exceeded two financial sustainability metrics: debt service as a percentage of the entire levy and unassigned fund balance as a percentage of the general fund expenditures.

Debt service is the cash that is required to cover the repayment of the interest and principal on a debt, and unassigned fund balance is essentially a “rainy-day” fund to ensure the county can make payroll and other expenses.

County officials don’t want the debt service levy to be more than 30 percent of the total levy, and the county will exceed that in 2019, Kirk said.

The general unassigned fund balance should be at least 30 percent of general fund expenditures, and it’s not, he told committee members.

“Budgeting in a way that makes sense is becoming more and more difficult for us as a county government because of the obstacles you see,” said Schauf, noting county officials have taken steps to reduce expenses through collaborations and innovative programs. “If we get no traction from the state of Wisconsin, we are going to have to start making decisions about … what it is you as policymakers would like to see as the future of this county.”

In an effort to raise revenues, the Eau Claire County Board in July approved a $30-per-vehicle registration fee for county roadwork. The fee took effect Jan. 1, and it is in addition to the $75-per-vehicle registration fee the state charges annually to register a vehicle in Wisconsin.

The county will have an estimated $2.39 million in additional revenue this year to pay for highway-related capital projects.

Eau Claire County has borrowed increasing amounts of money in recent years to repair and maintain its roads. Such borrowing is necessitated by the state-imposed limits that mean the county can’t increase its local tax collections at a high enough level to pay for its current services and road repairs.

Borrowing is exempt from revenue limits, but continued borrowing at current level isn’t feasible into the future, county officials have said, because the interest on that borrowing becomes too costly.

Supervisor Colleen Bates suggested the state consider a cost of living increase for counties to help cover operational costs.

“It would help us tremendously,” said Bates, vice chairwoman of the Committee on Administration.

Going forward, Supervisor Nick Smiar, chairman of the Committee on Administration and the County Board, suggested a three-prong approach — educating state lawmakers, fellow board members and taxpayers.

Removing snow from rooftops keeps worker busy this week

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Logan Keyeski climbed a ladder Thursday, got on the roof of a garage with his shovel in hand, and began tossing piles of snow to the ground below.

Keyeski, 22, has worked long days this week. When he isn’t plowing snow, he’s been on roofs.

“I’m swamped,” Keyeski said while hoisting snow that measured 2 feet deep. “We’ve hit 80 driveways and 20 houses between (Wednesday and Thursday.) I worked 18-19 hours Wednesday. I slept four or five hours.”

Keyeski said he has worked about 60 hours over the past five days, and he doesn’t see it slowing down soon.

“It will probably last all weekend, and into next week,” Keyeski said. “(Calls) haven’t stopped for the last five days.”

He admits he’s sore from all the shoveling.

“Biceps, shoulders, hands, wrists, you name it,” he said of where he’s hurting. “I’m beat, but you’ve got to get (the snow) down.”

Keyeski said people need to be aware of the dangers of leaving snow piling up on their roofs.

“It’s a safety hazard,” Keyeski said. “I’ve seen there is so much weight it cracks the windows. If you get up to 18 inches (of snow) and your pipe boots and vents are covered, that gets dangerous.”

When snow begins to melt, it can pool on the roof, which can cause more damage, such as moisture getting into the attic or walls.

“If there is a leak, and it hits the electrical, it’s a fire hazard,” he said. “All that weight, a house could collapse.”

Keyeski has owned his construction company for three years, but he turns to snow removal to stay busy in the winter. He doesn’t have a flat fee for snow removal; he charges based on the size and pitch of the roof.

Trevor Laher, project manager at Chippewa Falls-based Rock & Tait Exteriors, said his staff is also working nonstop on removing snow from roofs.

“It’s probably 300 calls since Monday,” Laher said. “We’ve scheduled 80 to 100 jobs. We run two to four (workers) on a crew. On some days, we can have five to six crews.”

Snow on roofs is particularly a problem if there is a sudden warm-up.

“The weight is an issue, especially if we keep getting snowed on,” he said. ‘’As it warms up, and it melts, it needs somewhere to go.”

Laher said removing snow isn’t just about getting the weight off the roof, it’s also about preventing ice dams.

“An ice dam is ice that forms near a valley or edges of roofs, causing it to back up, and not reach gutters,” Laher explained. That means seeping under shingles. “It usually finds ways into the house.”

Laher urged people to be preventative and get the snow off the roof rather than waiting to call until moisture gets inside.

“Snow is beautiful, but it’s hard on homes,” he said.

Treasury Department: Fewer refunds better for taxpayers

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Treasury Department is defending the declining numbers of tax refunds being issued so far this year, saying that taxpayers already saw the benefits of the new tax law in their paychecks.

The number of tax refunds issued so far fell nearly 16 percent to 11.4 million, compared with 13.5 million at the same point in the tax filing season last year, according to Treasury data published Thursday. The average amount of those refunds dropped to $1,949, compared with $2,135 in 2018.

“Most people are seeing the benefits of the tax cut in larger paychecks throughout the year, instead of tax refunds that are the result of people overpaying the government,” the Treasury said in a statement. “Smaller refunds mean that people are withholding appropriately based on their tax liability, which is positive news for taxpayers.”

The data, which reflect the first two weeks of the filing season, has been a sore point for some taxpayers who discovered their refund is smaller than last year as a result of the late-2017 tax overhaul, which altered available deductions and credits and revised withholding tables.

In some cases, taxpayers who were counting on a refund found they owed the government instead.

The IRS has been off to a slow start this filing season after a 35-day government shutdown left the agency with a fraction of its staff just before the filing season launched Jan. 28.

Taxpayers, too, have been slower to file this year. The IRS has received about 7 percent fewer returns at this point in the filing season compared with a year ago.

The IRS is urging taxpayers who unexpectedly owe money to pay what they can if they can’t cover the whole liability at once. The agency has payment plan options for people in that situation. The IRS has also waived some penalties for those who didn’t have enough withheld out of their paycheck during the year.