When I receive my property tax bill each December, I focus first on how much the bottom line increased from the previous year. Next, I look at the percentage increase in each of the taxing jurisdictions and compare that to the increase in the cost of living.
So I was a little taken aback late last year when I noticed the portion of my most recent tax bill for Eau Claire County went up 15 percent while the inflation rate is running at about 2.5 percent. When I add an additional $60 to cover the county wheel tax passed last year ($30 for each of our two cars), my contribution to Eau Claire County government rose about 24 percent in one year.
The County Board is limited by state law to how much it can raise the levy, so why did my taxes go up such a high percentage?
I delved into the county budget a bit and learned that debt will total $10.4 million for 2019, an amount exempt from the levy limits. Also, a revaluation of city property last year resulted in the value of my home going up at a bit higher percentage than average, which means my levy also went up a little more than average. For now, however, that higher valuation only helps me if I sell my house.
I bring this up because the county budget caught my attention when I read Leader-Telegram reporter Christena O’Brien’s story on Feb. 14. The article quoted county officials describing an increasing budget squeeze and concerns that if not addressed could result in cuts to county services. The story also noted officials’ concerns that this year’s $10.4 million debt cost exceeds 30 percent of the levy, an unacceptably high figure.
My intent isn’t to bash county officials, although while I have the opportunity I’ll gladly bash former county treasurer Larry Lokken and assistant Kay Onarheim, who for years by best estimates used $1.39 million in county (our) funds as their personal ATM machine before their scheme finally unraveled. The damage they did to the taxpayers’ trust is immeasurable. Why we continue to elect a county treasurer baffles me.
Getting back to the budget, Eau Claire County officials report that our levy still is in the lowest 25 percent statewide at $299 per person, compared with a state average of $369.
Also working in our favor is that we are the 15th most populous county in the state but 44th out of 72 counties in area. That should benefit us in that we have fewer miles of roads to maintain compared with a lot of other counties and more taxpayers per square mile to help foot the bill. It also means, I would think, more opportunities for intergovernmental cooperation, something we should consider if money remains tight.
Think about it. Merging road departments and law enforcement agencies could result in the same or better services with less administrative costs. Isn’t that what we already do with dispatch services, health department and EMT coverage?
Like most people, I don’t mind paying taxes to keep the place I call home clean and safe. I also don’t mind helping those who despite their best efforts truly need assistance, because that’s what defines us as human beings.
That said, I get more than a little annoyed having to keep paying more to catch, prosecute and punish people who refuse to behave responsibly. The largest share of the tax levy, about $12 million, funds the Sheriff’s Department, which includes the county jail. The county court system and related programs cost another $5 million.
As of last week, the jail held 287 inmates who must be housed and fed. Officials continually look for ways to reduce that number, and there seems to be growing sentiment that we may have people locked up who are no danger to the rest of us.
I don’t know the situation of any of these 287 cases. What I do know is that on Page 5A of the March 8 Leader-Telegram I read the word “methamphetamine” nine times. That’s right … one page of a single copy of the local newspaper, and all nine cases in Eau Claire County. Often these meth cases include some other infraction, such as one woman allegedly involved in making counterfeit bills that she exchanged for meth.
In watching the courts through the years, I’ve never felt judges have a “lock ‘em up” mentality, although the truth in sentencing wave that swept the nation some years back did take away some of their discretion. Mostly, though, those judges (and the rest of us) want to give people a second chance to get clean and back on track.
Too often, however, that doesn’t work, such as in the case of an Eau Claire man sentenced late last year to four years in prison for driving drunk for the 16th time. I’d say 15 “second chances” are more than enough to conclude we better pay to keep him locked up before he kills someone.
Then there was the case reported earlier this year of four Eau Claire County jail inmates accused of using cocaine “in their cells.”
Speaking of responsibility, Eau Claire County will spend about $2.3 million this year on “child protective services.” Also, according to figures, as of June 2017 about $5.9 billion was owed in unpaid child support statewide. According to federal figures, in January of last year only 43.5 percent of custodial parents nationwide received the full amount of their child support.
My most life-changing moments were the two times I was in the delivery room to witness the births of my children. It was then and there I could see with my own eyes the enormity and importance of the commitment of parenthood. How some people can shun that responsibility dumbfounds me.
I understand not all marriages work out, and I’m not judgmental in that regard. But I also don’t think we’re headed in the right direction.
From 1960 to 2016, the percentage of children living with only their mother tripled from 8 to 23 percent. Also, married couples now make up about 68 percent of all families, compared with 90 percent in 1950, which not coincidentally has been called the “Greatest Generation.”
One other thing. I’ve read a few articles stating that school officials in some communities are being pressured to reduce the number of student suspensions. I interpret that as bowing to those who disrupt classrooms and don’t respect their teachers. No classroom should be held hostage to such behavior, period.
I’ve strayed quite far from my property tax bill. But as I ponder the county budget, and all the things it pays for, I can’t help but think part of the reason for the cost crunch is that some people don’t think the rules apply to them, they’ve never been told “no” or they somehow think the rest of us owe them something.
And that cost keeps going up.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.