EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County Board supervisors received their first look at next year’s budget recommendations during the County Board meeting Tuesday.

According to the budget recommendation from County Administrator Kathryn Schauf, the county in 2022 will spend $154.52 million on operations, an increase of 7.82% compared to this year’s $143.31 million. The operating budget includes $40.19 million from tax levy, an increase of 7.25% compared to $37.47 million in tax levy in 2021. Tax levy is the amount of money collected from county taxpayers.

Of that $40.19 million in tax levy, debt service is projected to account for $15.95 million, a higher figure than the county would like.

“The projected 2022 debt service payment as estimated will be 36.47% of the total county levy, which will exceed the county debt management policy limit set at 30% of the county total tax levy,” Schauf wrote. “With the current tax levy limitations and the resulting necessity to continue to borrow to fund capital purchases in the future, it will very likely not be possible to maintain future debt service payments below the county debt management limitations.”

The amount of the county budget funded by debt is a growing concern.

“The continued strategy to require additional borrowing and incur the resulting debt service payments is creating a difficult dilemma for the county,” Schauf wrote. “While the borrowing capacity exists, the supporting payment requirements will continue to place an increasing burden on the total county levy.”

New debt to pay for county services accounts for most of the $15.95 million in debt service. If approved, new debt would total $14.8 million next year and be spent on areas like the new county highway facility, highway infrastructure and building and ground maintenance. However, Schauf anticipates that federal money the county received in the American Rescue Plan Act will cover some of that debt.

As of 2019, Eau Claire County was in the top quartile for debt among 72 Wisconsin counties. The county’s debt was $842 per person, much higher than the state average of $447 per person.

Other notable numbers from the budget recommendation are that the proposed 2022 tax rate is $3.967 per $1,000 of equalized valuation, an increase of 0.08% from $3.964 in 2021.

The county is also projected to spend $56.39 million on personnel and labor in 2022, a 9.83% increase compared to $51.34 million in 2021. That figure went up in part because the county budgeted 2.5% cost of living increases for its 623 full-time equivalent workers in 2022.

Schauf also wrote in her recommendation that the two areas representing the most risk for the county are the COVID-19 pandemic and human services programs. The pandemic presents many economic uncertainties, and it is unknown how long its effects will be felt.

Demand for human services programs, which are mainly related to mental health and behavioral health, has increased. Some of those programs are costly and mandated by the state. It is also difficult to project how many people will require significant care from DHS programs in a given year, making it hard to predict how much the county will have to spend.

“We have seen recent rises in case counts, in part due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has on the citizens in our community,” Schauf wrote. “Ongoing community need drives cost in this (human services) area – much of which is beyond control of local decision makers.”

On an encouraging note, the county projects sales tax collections will improve. Schauf recommended budgeting $11.72 million for sales tax revenue in 2022, an increase of about $1.2 million compared to this year.

A public hearing on the budget will occur during the County Board’s Oct. 19 meeting. The County Board will hold a special budget meeting Nov. 2 to consider the 2022 budget. Supervisors can propose budget amendments until Oct. 22 and during the Nov. 2 meeting.

Health Department COVID-19 update

Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, provided a COVID-19 update to the County Board.

Giese said Eau Claire County had 86 positive cases yesterday and that the average in the last week was 57 cases per day, similar case levels to this January.

Recently, the age group with the most positive COVID-19 cases is people under 18, and there has also been “disease spread in that population,” Giese said.

Some of that spread is related to cases in schools. After someone in an Eau Claire County school tests positive for the virus, Giese said schools provide a list of close contacts to Health Department workers, who communicate with parents and staff how an infected student should isolate and how close contacts should quarantine.

The number of close contacts is very high sometimes in schools, but Giese said the Health Department is working with schools to make close contacts “as few as possible.” For example, if masks are worn, three feet of distance from an infected person is considered close contact, while six feet is considered close contact if masks are not worn.

It is an ongoing challenge dealing with positive cases in schools.

“It’s difficult,” Giese said. “We have, as you may imagine, hundreds of individuals that are meeting the state and federal definition of a close contact in that school environment right now.”

In total, 120 people in the county have died from COVID-19.

As of Oct. 1, 54.6% of Eau Claire County residents are fully vaccinated, slightly above the state average of 53.6%. The county’s age 18-24 population is the only age group that has a lower vaccination rate than the state, with a 41% local rate compared to 46.7% in the state.

The county has also made third shots of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine available. According to the Health Department, “it is believed that upwards of 15,000 people in the area are now eligible for consideration of a booster dose.”

Overall, someone is much less likely to suffer serious symptoms and die from the virus if that person is vaccinated.

“The data across Wisconsin clearly shows that individuals that are fully vaccinated are much, much less likely to be hospitalized and to die from COVID-19,” Giese said.

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 19.