EAU CLAIRE — Wages in the Eau Claire metropolitan area are expected to rise faster than the rest of Wisconsin in coming years, according to new economic projections.

The latest forecast released last week for the state’s metro areas shows that overall income earned by residents of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties is expected to rise 8.5% this year, slightly more than the statewide forecast of 8.3%.

Of the 12 metro areas in Wisconsin, Eau Claire’s wage growth was tied for second with Wausau’s, with each behind only the Madison area.

State Revenue Secretary Peter Barca brought the new projections with him during a trip on Thursday to connect with state employees who work in Eau Claire.

The report released last week from the state Department of Revenue shows how much different parts of Wisconsin were hurt last year by the COVID-19 pandemic and how they’re recovering.

For example, overall wages grew by 1% in the Eau Claire metro area, reaching $4.28 billion, according to the report. However, this was notably slower growth than the 3.7% and 4.9% seen in the two previous years.

Exceptional wage growth forecast this year has been attributed to companies seeing higher demand as the economy surged back from the pandemic lull and has had to compete for workers by offering better pay.

“It’s become much more of an employee’s market,” Barca said.

Though not quite the same jump as this year, wages are still anticipated to see strong growth in 2022, based on the projections.

Wages for the workforce in the Eau Claire area are expected to grow by 5.7% next year, behind only the 6.2% forecast for the Madison area and ahead of the state’s overall 5.2%.

But along with the encouraging predictions for area workers, the Department of Revenue is also cautioning that the figures need the pandemic to be under control to come true.

“Much of this is still public health dependent,” Barca said.

His department announced earlier this year that revenue collections for the recently completed fiscal year were 11.6% ahead of the previous one, which was hampered by the onset of the pandemic.

For the year ending this June, the state took in nearly $19.6 billion in various taxes, up from $17.5 billion from the prior fiscal year.

Significant growth was reported in income, sales and corporate taxes, which Barca pointed to as evidence of the state’s rebound from the economic hit the pandemic dealt in spring 2020.

“These are the ones that really tell the story,” he said, pointing to increased collections for those tax categories.

Nonpartisan research group Wisconsin Policy Forum took note of another category of state taxes showing that residents also bought much more alcohol between July 2020 to this June than prior years.

The state received $73.8 million in excise taxes on alcoholic beverages in the recent fiscal year — a 16.6% increase from the previous year and the biggest increase seen since 1972. (In 1972, there were tax increases on wine and liquor and the legal drinking age lowered, the report noted.)

The research group surmised that the rise in alcohol was tied to people dealing with pressures caused by the pandemic.

“For individuals, this period also may have generated increased stress about personal health and the health of loved ones, lost or reduced employment, fewer work or leisure activities, and challenges with school and child care,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s report stated. “During such a period, it is perhaps unsurprising that alcohol sales increased in Wisconsin.”

But the researchers also noted that excessive alcohol use is a leading public health concern in this state and it will be important to monitor sales to determine if the surging sales were a one-time byproduct of the pandemic or start of a trend.

As for the additional money brought in by the higher alcohol sales, the research group notes that while it is $10.5 million more than last year, it’s not a lot when looking at the overall state budget.

It is part of the nearly $2 billion in additional tax revenue being brought in, which Barca said will help strengthen the state’s surplus, boost its “rainy-day” fund and improve Wisconsin’s bond rating.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter